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J. Edgar

J. Edgar

Released 20 January 2012
Director Clint Eastwood

Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas, Damon Herriman, Ken Howard, Jeffrey Donovan
Writer(s) Dustin Lance Black

Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Robert Lorenz
Origin United States
Running Time 137 minutes
Genre Biography, drama
Rating 12A

DiCaprio does a De Niro.

John Edgar Hoover, the first director of the F.B.I. is one of the most polarising figures in recent American history. For some on the political spectrum he was a patriotic hero, for others he was a monstrous despot. Yet, until now he’s only been portrayed as a bit player in major Hollywood films. Yes, he’s been played as the lead by the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Jack Warden and Treat Williams in various TV movies. However in the cinema it’s mainly been as a supporting part. Bob Hoskins played him in Oliver Stone’s Nixon and Billy Crudup played him in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.

However now Clint Eastwood has decided Hoover deserves a film devoted entirely to himself. Eastwood is famously one of the few Hollywood stars who declares himself a conservative, albeit a conservative with a small ‘c’. He’s brought in Leonardo DiCaprio to play Hoover, not an obvious choice it must be said. Hoover was famously short, stumpy and fat, while DiCaprio is a tall, lithe and blond. DiCaprio has graduated from teen heartthrob into a fine grown-up actor with excellent performances in the likes of The Departed, Shutter Island and The Aviator. But can he really convince as J. Edgar Hoover?

The film begins in the early sixties as Hoover is in constant conflict with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan). Hoover decides the story of the F.B.I. needs to be told and he decides to write a book about his long career dictating it to agents in his office. His story begins in 1919 at the height of the ‘red scare’ in America where public officials were being targeted by leftist terrorists. Hoover was working for A. Mitchell Palmer, the Attorney General who survived an assassination attempt and responded by launching the ‘Palmer Raids’ rounding up suspected foreign radicals for deportation. Hoover survives the political fallout from this and aged only twenty-nine, he’s made the head of the Bureau of Investigation, then a relatively small agency.

However in battling the notorious gangsters such as John Dillinger and Alvin Karpis, the agency earns a lot of publicity and grows bigger becoming the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover takes personal control and emphasises scientific methods of detection and intelligence gathering. After an unsuccessful attempt to woo her he hires Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) as his secretary. He then meets Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and hires him as his special assistant. There is a special focus on the ‘Lindberg Baby’ case of 1932. Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) was a famous pilot and when his baby son was kidnapped it became a national obsession. The F.B.I. solved the crime using scientific methods and this only increased their popularity with the public.

The film constantly flicks back and forward between these events and the sixties, where Hoover is paranoid about the Kennedys and is terrified of the rise of Martin Luther King. The problem with this though is it lacks direction and clarity. Hoover obviously had an eventful life, but by trying to fit it all in, the film appears cluttered and aimless. There is also a strong focus on his relationship with Tolson, and whether it was a homosexual one, as has long been rumoured. Dustin Lance Black, the gay scriptwriter who won an Oscar for Milk, investigates this idea with quite a lot of sensitivity, eventually settling for the idea that the two were in love, but that the relationship was non-sexual.

DiCaprio put on quite a bit of weight to play Hoover in his older years and wears prosthetic makeup too. He clearly committed himself to the part and it pays off with an excellent performance. There’s good support from the always dependable Judi Dench as Hoover's mother but Naomi Watts is somewhat wasted as Gandy. Armie Hammer is a smart piece of casting though as he’s one of the few Hollywood actors taller than DiCaprio and he makes him look smaller and chunkier just by walking beside him. His make-up budget was clearly smaller than DiCaprio’s though and his ‘old guy’ makeup makes him look oddly like the actor Jason Segel.

The film does explore how Hoover’s paranoia made him compile secret files on public figures which he used to blackmail them. But it largely stays away from his more flagrant abuses of power to focus on his tortured battle with his sexuality. It seems to be pleading for sympathy for him on these grounds, but seeing how Hoover constantly used his office to persecute homosexuals, this might be a hard sell.

Overall, this is a decent biopic if a little dull. But it’s worth catching for DiCaprio’s performance.

- Jim O’Connor