Film review: J. EDGAR from Built for Speed

It seems to be the year for biopics of controversial conservative icons, first it was Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, now it’s infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leo Di Caprio) in the rather uninventively titled J. Edgar.

The film portrays most of the major events in Hoover’s professional life including the search for Charles Lindbergh’s baby, his pursuit of criminals like John Dillinger, his unusual relationship with his over-protective Mother (a convincingly stern Judi Dench) and his long-term relationship with assistant Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer).  The film also provides interesting insights into the communist bombings that plagued the US in the 1920’s but I would have liked to have seem more of Hoover’s volatile relationship with the Kennedy’s.

Like the Thatcher film this one employs an unusual and disconcerting structure as it jumps back and forth through time, mostly from Hoover’s early days in the 20’s and 30’s through to the 60’s.

Director Clint Eastwood attempts to give a fairly balanced view of Hoover but in so doing portrays him as a man of many contradictions: obsessively meticulous yet often impulsive, extremely private yet desperate for public adulation, an acolyte of scientific truth yet more than willing to bend the facts as it suited him – including his role in capturing major criminals.  Eastwood credits Hoover with a phenomenal work ethic and initiative in developing investigative techniques (including finger printing) but also portrays him as paranoid, intolerant of others and an obsessive stickler for petty rules.

Like many of Eastwood’s recent movies it’s efficiently told but emotionally and at times visually grey.  It’s really just a procession of events that partially reveal the psychology of the title character.  I was no expert on Hoover before the film and I didn’t feel I knew him much better afterward.

Part of the blame rests with Di Caprio who, despite the role he’s playing, seems to be the same character in every film – a tenacious, grumpy loner with a perpetually furrowed brow who hisses sarcastic dialogue.  He’s a compelling screen presence at times in this film but doesn’t inhabit the role of Hoover, I kept thinking “that’s Leo in make-up playing an older guy”.  That ageing make-up itself is also a big problem, not so much for Di Caprio but Hammer as Tolson looks like a creepy living puppet and  Naomi Watts as Hoover’s long time personal assistant doesn’t fare much better.  It’s as if they haven’t improved the cosmetics since the dodgy make up job on Joseph Cotton in Citizen Kane 70 years ago.

J Edgar Hoover was a fascinatingly weird character and I think this solid but monochrome biopic only scratches the surface of his personality.

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