J Edgar Review: Watching From A Distance

J EDGAR (15): On General Release Friday 20th January

Clint Eastwood dives back into historical drama yet again with J Edgar, a biopic of Hoover, the man who created the FBI and presided over its ministrations for over 35 years. 

J Edgar is a well-made and solid historical drama which keeps its distance from its subject matter; a worthy and serious examination which somehow fails to engage on more than an intellectual level – a familiar complaint of Clint Eastwood-directed films in which he doesn’t feature.

The narrative flips between the 1960s where Hoover is dictating his memoirs to a succession of young agents and various snapshots of Hoover’s career highlights.  So, while Hoover sermonises from behind a desk in his office, we flick back to The Palmer Raids of 1919 which inspired a young Hoover to dedicate his life to observing and reporting on people’s behaviour; the high-profile Charles Lindbergh baby-abduction case in the early 30s; and the covert investigation of Martin Luther King in the late 1950s.

Eastwood wisely decides to highlight the unreliability of Hoover’s words – the testimony of a man who kept a watchful eye on both the guilty and the innocent and kept so many secrets;  Big Brother before Orwell even coined the term – could never be completely impartial.  What he does instead is build a character study of a complex individual.

Hoover is at once both sympathetic (his desire to modernise and develop forensic science is admirable and understandable) and detestable (investigating those he deemed to be personal threats; his escalating paranoia getting the better of professional judgement – a relevant modern theme of national security vs. personal liberty).  He’s also a man struggling with personal as well as professional demons – dogged by repressed homosexuality and living constantly in the shadow of his mother’s expectations.

Hoover’s sexuality is portrayed with admirable restraint (especially considering rumours about his cross-dressing and indulgence in gay orgies).  His strong love for fellow agent and life partner Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is the constant touchstone of the film – sweet rather than ostentatious, expressed through unflagging devotion (never missing a dinner together) and secretive squeezed hands.

In one stand-out scene, J Edgar tries to explain his sexuality to his mother (an icily domineering Judi Dench) only to be rebuffed with a story of a young man cruelly nicknamed “daffodil” who committed suicide because of the taunts he received as an outed homosexual.  “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil” she declares.

Leonardo Di Caprio delivers another star turn even though he doesn’t bear much of a resemblance (Hoover himself was a portly man with a beady stare), but he gets the voice just right and has the scowling unrelenting tenacity.   It’s just a shame that the make-up department has done such a poor job that his jowly-wobbling face almost looks like he’s wearing a comedy Halloween face-mask.

An aging Armie Hammer fares even worse resembling a half-melted, liver-spotted Madam Tussauds reject, which is a shame as the sideshow facial botch job overshadows a powerful performance.  Naomi Watts is adequate as Hoover’s long-suffering secretary Helen Gandy, but the script gives her very little to do and an explanation for her unwavering dedication and loyalty to her boss is never given.

Ultimately, the brush-strokes are far too broad to cover such a sweeping length of time (even with its formidable running time of 137 minutes)  – the film feels far too plodding, far to distanced from its subject and the narrative too fractured to build up any kind of emotional engagement.  Scenes which should by all rights have produced a tear seem merely functional – a human story viewed through sheets of glass.

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