Our rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Controversy has surrounded this film from its inception to the final result, but Clint Eastwood has taken a somber story of an imperfect man and breathed life into it, assisted by a terrific performance from his leading actor.
Memoirs are on J. Edgar Hoover's mind. He wants to be remembered, and have the public know the story of the early beginnings of the FBI. Flashing back to 1919, when communist terrorists were striking the homes of senators and judges, young J. Edgar (Leonardo DiCaprio) is new to the Bureau. It is in its infancy and has nothing to offer, not forensics nor fingerprinting. Local authorities bungle crime scenes and destroy evidence accidentally. But with his ambition and determination to be of use, it isn't long before J. Edgar is heading up the bureau in an attempt to make it something unique.
Their first immense challenge is the kidnapping of the Limburg baby, a case that tests all their investigative skills and forever alters the course of forensic investigations. Meanwhile, J. Edgar struggles to complete himself as a man in a world that expects certain things from him that he cannot offer. His two most trusted friends are his secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his right hand man with whom he shares a particular fondness. Together, they weather the storms of public outcry and indignation, presidents embroiled in scandal, the rise and fall of gunslingers, and fight to change laws that allow the FBI to have more impact.
At first, I thought this movie was lackluster. It is slow to start and a bit pondering in its execution, of moving back and forth between an old, liver-spotted Hoover and a young man. But somewhere around the Limburg kidnapping the film found its pace and really became fantastic. It helps if, like me, you aren't up on all the particulars of that famous crime, so that as the events unfold you can experience a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The script doesn't shy away from showing the socially awkward, stuttering side of this man, nor his ruthlessness when it comes to using his newfound wire-tapping power to blackmail people into giving him what he wants. But it never goes so far as to pass judgment on him; it leaves that up to the audience, while at times being brutally honest about his insecurities and outright falsehoods.
Whether or not J. Edgar was a closet homosexual has been much debated; this film chooses to hint that he is, but doesn't go much further than showing his affection for Clyde in limited terms. If the two are physical, it is never shown, but the second half of the film unfolds rather like a restrained romance, wrought with tension and dismay that they cannot be together. His mother informs him in no uncertain terms that she would rather have a dead son than a homosexual one. In a confrontation over whether or not J. Edgar is going to get married, fists fly and then, pinning him to the floor, Clyde kisses him on the lips. Shaken, J. Edgar tells him never to do that again. Were they just friends, or were they lovers? The film chooses to believe the former is impossible.
Content-wise, this is the tamest R-rated film I have ever seen. Other than the forced kiss and some shooting violence, the reason is thanks to three profane words -- two of "c**ks****er" and one f-word (by Nixon, who also exclaims "Jesus Christ!"). Mild language surfaces elsewhere. J. Edgar discusses discovering a prominent woman is a lesbian and says he has proof in the form of a letter. He listens to a sex tape elsewhere; the audience watches shadows on the wall undress one another. In a moment of grief, J. Edgar dons his mother's dress and pearls and lies weeping on her bedroom floor. We see a decomposing infant's body in the woods.
Biopics are hard things to make, but this one is surprisingly good, even if at times the "old" makeup is downright distracting. It handles back and forth transitions better than any other film I have ever seen, and holds the audience's attention throughout. It does not appear to have an agenda other than to tell the story of a remarkable but flawed man... and it does it well.