The problem with J. Edgar is a lack of colour. While the facts of Hoover’s life are interesting for sure, he’s a man characterised by inaction – as a son he ignored his invalid father, as an FBI agent he made no arrests, and as a man he never acted on his feelings for other men.
After opening to some narration from an older Hoover about the difference between hero and villain in the eyes of history, the film cuts to the bombing of the Attorney General’s home – an event Hoover claims to have been present for earlier in his life. This typifies the structure of the story. J. Edgar paces his office, dictating his exaggerated memoirs to a series of typists – all men, and all of whom disappoint him in some way (including Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick and one who looks like a young Barack Obama)
No doubt in an effort to make everything look period-appropriate; Eastwood made everyone look the same. All of them men wear near identical suits & sport matching of-the-time haircuts – once in particular I noticed Hoover and his protégé Tolson were wearing the exact inverse of each other: grey coat over black jacket with a grey hat – black coat over grey jacket with a black hat. I’ve no doubt this was intended to signify the bond developing between the two, but in a picture this monochromatic it just felt silly.
Hoover’s relationship with women is touched on a total of three times. The first is with his mother, who serves as prophet of his future as the “greatest man in this country” and a mirror to his soul – often inexplicably spouting exactly what Hoover is thinking, just in case the audience wasn’t keeping up. The second is his long-suffering secretary-and-almost-girlfriend Ms Gandy, one of the only two truly loyal people in J. Edgar’s life – loyalty being that which Hoover values above all else. The third depicts Hoover uncomfortably refusing the advances of a trio of women, giving us a small insight into his fragile and defensive nature.
It’s not a Bad movie. Some scenes that should be hard-hitting end up falling flat for lack of arc or impetus, but there’s a wealth of good material here. The scene between Hoover and Jeffery Donovan’s Bobby Kennedy was equal parts gripping and comic – gripping because of the characters involved, the weight of their discussion and the power of the two actors combined, comic because of the truly silly accents they both had to keep up; as the scene wore on it actually seemed like they were encouraging each other to go full retard.
Eastwood also takes the crossdressing scene, one that could’ve been a disastrous laugh-riot, and makes of it something tender and heartrending – a window into the hollow sadness of Hoover’s personal life. Equally compelling is the scene where J. Edgar is finally forced to confront his feelings for his protégé.
Obviously this film is carried wholesale on the Atlas shoulders of Leonardo DiCaprio, who breaks off a bit of his Howard Hughes character in certain scenes (a meticulous Hoover wiping his hands after every handshake, a beleaguered Hoover eloquently espousing the urgent need for and immediate benefits of his Federal Bureau of Investigation at a congressional hearing), and portrays this conflicted, driven and often tragic individual with his trademark careful, studied grit.
Despite these saves though, the film still feels like an outrageously well-acted documentary.