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-man’s tales be trusted?
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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 century’s most colourful characters.
Reviewed by Nick de Semlyen