J EDGAR (CERT 15) ***
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts
R.T. 137 minutes
The infamous and all-powerful FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was feared for over 50 years because he had files on everyone from the President downwards. He knew everyone’s secrets but he kept a few dangerous ones about himself too.
“Given that the man is among the most controversial figures of recent US history, making a film this tedious really takes some doing.” Daily Mirror
“A pleasing, intelligent film happy to describe Hoover’s behaviour as monstrous but too balanced and searching to damn him as a monster.” Time Out
“This may be a closety film about a closety character, but the tensions between Eastwood’s direction and the script he’s directing keep us off-guard in an intriguing way. The results, whatever one thinks of them, may be square, but they’re all of a piece.” Chicago Tribune
“Despite being buried in layers of prosthetic latex, DiCaprio is a roaring wonder as J. Edgar Hoover. Even when the film trips on its tall ambitions, you can’t shake it off.” Rolling Stone
“As a period biopic, “J. Edgar” is masterful. Few films span seven decades this comfortably.” Chicago Sun-Times
Well let’s get the worst thing about this film over with right from the start: the latex make-up is a disaster. Clint Eastwood decides to cover seventy years in the life of J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the three main characters have to age appropriately through the many complicated flash-backs and flash-forwards that knit together into a highly complex film – often making jarring contrast between made-up and un-made up faces. Hoover himself, his loyal assistant Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his close friend and colleague, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) all begin their roles as fresh-faced young things but, disastrously for the audience, age into weirdly extra-terrestial wrinklies who look suspiciously like young people with latex on their faces.
Well, what was done in the make-up department can’t be undone and we should all try to get over it because otherwise some wonderful acting will go to waste. Leonardo DiCaprio, in particular, puts in a virtuoso performance as the passionate, brutal, sexually repressed, frightened, insecure and secretly romantic J Edgar Hoover and it would be a great injustice if this his latest acting triumph is over-looked just because of the latex.
The same applies to Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer, the later perhaps suffering most from his make-up department. Hammer is perfect as the shyly charismatic young Clyde, the handsome young graduate that, even though he won’t admit it, wins Hoover’s love at first sight. Later, he works hard as the elderly Clyde in some of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the entire film but, sorry to go on about this, he does look seriously ridiculous.
This is the latest film from Clint Eastwood’s extraordinarily long life as a director – there’s no latex keeping him out of the studios these days and it’s good to see that age has not silenced him because even though the film is very far from flawless, he has brought a different perspective to his projects since he became a very old man. He doesn’t have time for the bleedin’ obvious these days. This is a long film and it is not in a hurry – just like an old gentlemen taking his time to get off the bus, Clint knows how fast he can go and he is not going to get pushed along by any young whippersnappers who want to get to the point quickly when, like this sentence, there are some interesting views to take in on route. So we really do live through these seventy years of American history which are threaded together as a mix of fact and fiction, both by the film-makers and by Hoover himself as he dictates his version of his career to a series of handsome young male clerks. This double mixing of the story-line makes for a very muddy plot indeed where we feel increasing sympathy for the poor young men who have the job of making sense of Hoover’s drawling, self-promoting narrative.
The film looks magnificent (one thing excepted of course but let’s not go there again) with a particularly beautiful use of colour gradations for the different time periods. The story can be difficult to follow for anyone unfamiliar with 20th Century American history but if you keep your wits about you, there is much to learn from this Hoover-eye World view – paranoid and muddled about communists and radicals perhaps but not without its warnings about explosive 21st Century fundamentalists. Mr Eastwood takes a long hard look at history but he might be expecting too much from an easily restive cinema audience.
He succeeds magnificently in the least explicit part of the story, the love that daren’t speak its name between J Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson, the love between Edgar and his mother (the formidable and convincingly, just, American, Judi Dench) and the love that has nothing to do with sex that is the relationship between Hoover and Helen Gandy who is just uncomfortable enough to make her point whenever she hears mention of Eleanor Roosevelt’s guilty secret. Clint Eastwood is a surprizingly liberal advocat here for gay liberation showing subtlety and sensitivity to these troubled and repressed relationships between less than lovable folk.
The central romantic and emotional relationship is brought to a genuinely moving conclusion in the final scenes that tie together the director’s many themes – enough to make us wonder what Hoover and the USA would have been like if he had been free to marry Clyde Tolson.