The movie starts off with a bang, literally. The home of the attorney general, Hoover’s boss, is bombed by radicals and a young Hoover scoops up the leaflets left behind. It is this dedication to details that will follow him throughout his life . We embark with him on his rise to power and decades-long dominance, achieved through fear and coercion of some of Washington’s most powerful people.
Eastwood’s film examines every aspect of the public and private life of a strange, tortured man who had a phenomenal will for power. The opening reel establishes the scope of the story which ranges from Hoover’s 20’s to his final days overseeing the FBI at age 77. He was the director under 8 presidents, across 48 years, during some of the most trying cases of the 20th century. He collaborated with Senator McCarthy on anti-communist witch hunts, he called M. L. King Jr. “the most notorious liar in the country”, he was accused of racism, he was a homophobe (gays were dismissed from service), accused of sexism (women were allowed to serve as secretaries but never as agents), and was involved in the investigation into the Lindbergh baby abduction. J. Edgar Hoover was a lifelong bachelor who was seldom seen without his trusty deputy Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). His private life was a mystery, yet he kept meticulous files with compromising details on some of Americas most powerful figures.
J. Edgar is played with pure power by Leonardo Di Caprio spanning seven decades from his beginning as a young man working in the office of the Justice Department to his nearly 50 year tenure as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Unfortunately, that is part of the problem with the film with a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes , in my opinion about thirty minutes too long. It is impossible to condense the life of such an important figure into a movie, particularly of someone with a history as complex as Hoover’s. Although well written by Dustin Lance Black, the script gets too bogged down with all of the details and it eventually slows the movie down making it difficult to still be engaged by the time the title character’s life finally comes to and end.
The only thing that truly keeps your attention, and the main reason I went to see the film, is Leonardo Di Caprio’s tremendous performance. He is exceptional in the role as he nails Hoover’s distinctive way of speaking and conveys nuances of his emotions throughout his entire life. Di Caprio has the remarkable ability to convincingly play the character at any point during the film’s 48-year timeline. Di Caprio’s performance is unforgettable with some scenes so powerful that they resonate throughout the theater. His transformation is seamless and the impeccable make-up job adds to the believability of the aging process (though I must note, they fell short when aging Armie Hammer’s character).
True to Eastwood’s understated nature, he offers a tasteful treatment of J. Edgar Hoover’s personal life. It is the way he addresses the widely believed suspicion that Hoover was gay and had a love affair with his longtime companion Clyde Tolson played wonderfully by Armie Hammer. The scenes between Tolson and Hoover are electric and sometimes playful and funny.
Two women figured importantly in Hoover’s life. One was his domineering mother Annie Hoover (played by seasoned pro Judi Dench) Hoover and his mother have emotionally charged scenes. She is a caring homophobic mother who exerts enormous control over her son’s personality. She tells him, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son” . The other woman in his life is Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) an office worker who dates Hoover and refuses his proposal of marriage on their third date. This does not deter Hoover, instead Gandy becomes his confidential secretary for the rest of his life and the woman entrusted to keep his secret files.
Black’s script masterfully alternates between Hoover’s public grandstanding with insights into his private life from past to present. We see the good things about J. Edgar Hoover, for instance his championing of scientific crime scene analysis and the use of fingerprints (think CSI, NCIS etc….they can all thank him!) but we also see the much more darker pathological side, his mania for collecting incriminating evidence on people, and his bribery and bending of rules to attain a goal.
If you are a history buff who can withstand few slow-moving story-lines for the sake of great performances then this one is for you! Otherwise, you might be happier waiting to rent the film and at home so you can skip ahead or grab a snack during the slower portions of the film.