J. EDGAR *** (out of five)
Clint Eastwood’s new film J. Edgar is another in a long line of attempts to capture some of the insanity that was J. Edgar Hoover. The best before this one was The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, from 1977, directed by the irascible Larry Cohen and starring Broderick Crawford as Hoover. What made that film so fun was its salaciousness: claiming to be based on the secret files of J. Edgar Hoover that “escaped the shredder” upon his death, the film implicates Hoover in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, amongst a cavalcade of other misuses of his long-held office. J. Edgar Hoover was not a pretty man, and that film did not paint a pretty picture of him.
The new film, surprisingly, goes in a different direction, and I guess it’s a direction that I wasn’t so fond of traveling. It feels like, along the way of researching Hoover and trying to figure out what made him tick, Eastwood and his titular star Leonardo DiCaprio decided that the man had a soul. Like Oliver Stone’s weirdly polite W, J. Edgar seems to bend over backwards to find nice things to say about someone whom the world has generally agreed was a despicable person.
Like all of Eastwood’s period pictures, it’s extremely handsome in its production design, proceeds at a stately pace, and features an unbelievably authentic-feeling supporting cast: wherever Eastwood finds his “unknowns”, they always seem to have absolutely stepped out of the era in which his movies are set. The age makeup is fantastic on DiCaprio. But on Naomi Watts, as his career secretary Helen, and Armie Hammer, as his career right-hand man and lover… well, that’s a different story. Watts’ makeup, when she’s meant to be her oldest, simply doesn’t look real. Hammer’s is a step up from that. The first time we see his character Clyde Tolson at his eldest is a shock: his age makeup is so extreme that it’s a little laughable. Clyde has had a stroke, and I guess, historically, he aged a lot more – and a lot worse – than Hoover. Even if Hammer’s makeup is slavishly true to this, it doesn’t help the movie: every time he’s onscreen as his eldest self, he looks silly.
This is a shame because Hammer, and Clyde, are the most interesting thing about the movie. Why anyone could be in love with Hoover is anyone’s guess, and the movie disappointingly doesn’t attempt to examine that question in the slightest, but at least it recognizes Clyde Tolson’s existence, and his place in Hoover’s life. Indeed, unlike the 1977 film, which was an Oliver Stoneish exposé of political office, J. Edgar is a love story. The fact that one of the lovers is someone you wouldn’t want at your dinner table means that the film is handsome, well crafted, well acted, but, ultimately, not nearly as involving as it might have been. Frankly, I really wish Eastwood had put the boot in – but I guess that’s just not his style.