J Edgar (15) ★★★ Director: Clint Eastwood Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts

Epic tale half-told

By Gerald McCusker

What’s the story? Ambitious, domineering and uncompromising, J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a man married to the law.

As he dictates his life and career to junior FBI agents for a bloated and self-serving autobiography, we’re taken on a journey that skips backwards and forwards through time to witness the rise of a greatly flawed American legend.

Following the Communist bombings of Washington DC in 1919, we’re introduced to a young ambitious man whose distrust of Communist sympathisers paves the way for a career at the top of the then Bureau of Investigation.

Believing in the power of forensic science to help aid criminal investigations, Hoover struggles to marry science and crime fighting, and it’s only in the wake of the kidnapping of pioneering pilot Charles Lindbergh’s infant son that Hoover’s vision of a centralised, educated and scientific force comes to fruition.

As the eras pass, we witness Hoover blackmail his way through eight US Presidents with his vice-like grip on power strengthening with each passing year.
Any good?

Charting the notorious career of FBI founder J Edgar Hoover, Clint Eastwood’s J Edgar is a strangely sensitive tale that seems to almost adore a man who seemingly lied, bullied and cheated his way to the top and used secret recordings of numerous presidents’ indiscretions to blackmail and secure a career that lasted 48 long and gruelling years.

When you think of J Edgar Hoover, you think of a power-hungry egomaniac who dabbled in cross-dressing, but here Eastwood paints a picture of a staunch American patriot who struggled to come to terms with his own homosexuality and who only ever found solace through his powerful position as head of the FBI.

As a man, he’s portrayed as being both lonely and socially awkward but also an ambitious visionary who pioneers the use of forensic science to solve crimes – you feel both distaste and admiration for him, but the darker, more sinister aspects of his personality don’t really surface as you’d expect them to and this results in a film that shines an extremely sympathetic light on a flawed hero. And so the film comes across as somewhat boastful – bloated, self-admiring and long-winded, much like Hoover himself.

However, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is brilliant as he transforms himself physically into a hunched, overweight, uncomfortable and ill-at-ease control-freak. It’s very much a one-man show as DiCaprio’s Hoover takes centre stage in all aspects of his story, regardless of whether they have been slightly fabricated by the man himself in order to make him look a lot more heroic than he really was.

Judi Dench is just as imposing playing Hoover’s religious and hard-to-please mother Anna Marie, Naomi Watts is somewhat wasted as his long-serving secretary Helen Gandy and Armie Hammer brings a genteel manner to his role as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s right-hand man and secret love.

 


Final word?

A very sensitive, sentimental and humanitarian tale about a powerful yet flawed historical figure, J Edgar worships a notoriously difficult and ruthless man while failing to shed any light on his shortcomings. Still, it’s worth a look if you like big, bold, epic dramas.

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