As he works on his memoirs at FBI headquarters, an aged J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) explains how he went from fiercely ambitious law student to all-powerful Bureau boss. But can the G-mans tales be trusted?
American legends don't come much more slippery than J. Edgar Hoover, the intelligence ogre who obsessively surveilled his nation’s most powerful citizens (both guilty and innocent) from his Washington fortress, but whose own private life remains a secret. Clint Eastwood’s making-of-a-monster epic strains to puzzle out how Hoover came to be, but ultimately doesn’t do justice to its complex subject.
The tricksy plot structure sees Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) dictating his life story to a series of young agent-stenographers (naturally, it turns out that not every word is accurate). Accordingly, the film flashes back to 1919, when the Palmer Raids were giving the 24 year-old Edgar a taste for harassing undesirables; returns to the typewriter; spins back to the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping case; forward again for some Kennedy-era wire-tapping, and so on. By the end it gets quite exhausting, for a movie about a man who spends most of his time behind a desk.
For Eastwood and Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Hoover’s sexuality is key. Throughout his life, the film speculates, he had feelings for his handsome colleague, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) — and presumably other men — that he never dared act on. In one chilling, stand-out scene, Edgar tries to explain to his mother (Judi Dench, wonderfully sour) that he feels no sexual attraction to women. Mrs. Hoover responds by telling of a sensitive boy, nicknamed ‘Daffodil’, who killed himself after being outed as a homosexual. “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil,” she sniffs with pursed lips. “Yes, mother,” he replies.
DiCaprio is a fairly bizarre pick as Hoover — he looked more like James Gandolfini or Bob Hoskins, and the Inception star isn’t the first person you’d think of when casting a celibate, fussy mummy’s boy. But he turns out to be more convincing than he was as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, summoning up a ferocity behind prosthetic jowls that’s credible enough to invite Oscar talk. He’s even good enough to stop one inspecting his dubious make-up too closely, though Hammer is more hamstrung by his, resembling a liver- spotted waxwork of Robert Duvall.
Strong as both actors are, neither is able to make much of an impact in a film that rushes through seven decades of US history (Naomi Watts fares even worse as Hoover’s secretary, whose reasons for staying at his side remain unclear). It’s a gutsy attempt to humanise the Vampire Of Pennsylvania Avenue, but might have been more satisfying as an HBO mini-series or a smaller, less sweeping tale.
A well acted but unfocused study of one of the 20th centurys most colourful characters.