The Oscar bait was set. Clint Eastwood behind the camera, Leonardo Di Caprio in front of it, together portraying arguably one of the most secretive and powerful men ever to have changed America. A man who founded and expanded one of the most iconic crime fighting forces in the world but also a man whose own personal life was the source of intense speculation: his sexuality and his all consuming need for knowledge and power. J. Edgar was primed for great things, but unfortunately, the end result falls jarringly flat.
The problem is not, as most people expected, with the casting of Di Caprio. There were clamours of trepidation when the news was released. He was too young, too fresh-faced, and too clean to be playing Hoover. But Di Caprio comes through with menace and style. His first words on the screen, drawn out and accented, highlight the grimace of the aged Hoover, his voice perpetually angry underneath the wobble of latex jowls (he does however look disconcertingly like Philip Seymour Hoffman). Throughout the film Di Caprio delivers a solid performance, portraying the fluttering insecurity of the young J.Edgar perfectly. It’s all there in the slight stammer, the clipped accent when faced with more powerful men, the narrowing of the eyebrows. The two stand-out moments of the acting however, and indeed, of the film, are both centred around Hoover’s repressed homosexuality.
The first is at the death bed of Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench), a woman who once coldly told him that she would rather have ‘a dead son than a daffodil.’ In her death, for just a few moments, Hoover feels a certain kind of twisted freedom. With shaking hands and a barely audible ‘What are you doing, Edgar?’ under his breath, he pulls his mother’s dress on, looking at himself in a dimly lit mirror with an equal mixture of disgust and overwhelming liberty. And then he breaks down entirely, and weeps, a broken man. The second is the brutally direct conversation he has with Armie Hammer’s Clyde Tolson, his protégée, his friend, and the man he has reticent sexual feelings for. With a bruised face, lips cut, and bellowing at Tolson not to leave, begging him to stay with him, you begin to have faith that the film is going to hit its stride. Alas.
The problem with the film as whole is that it is simply too long, too tedious and entirely too unfocused. Eastwood’s barrage of flashbacks (mainly to the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and then later to the Kennedy wire taps) are too short and scattered to hold the viewer’s attention for any period, but then also played out for so long that they lack any kind of tension or intrigue. The weightier points; namely the relationship with Tolson and the way that he creates the near impregnable FBI are too easily passed over. The supporting cast are bland and almost entirely superficial, and the secret files that once held an entire country’s imagination are barely even discussed, let alone examined and dissected. His meteoric rise to power, from the days when he was out capturing communists to when he sits in his fortress, a reservoir of knowledge on anyone and everyone he has even the mildest distaste for at his hands, is played out with no real conviction. You don’t care. You don’t even understand how he got there. It means nothing.
J. Edgar is a film with a run time of two hours forty minutes that feels like it’s five hours long. It’s unfortunately not gripping, compelling, entertaining or fun. Di Caprio will probably get an Oscar nod, but apart from that, there’s really not all that much to take away from this offering.