As a big fan of biopic films, I love to see whether the actor or actress can capture the essence of a person we all know so well that I start to think I am watching that actual person on screen. I love to see how the director chooses to interpret the character, how he has chosen to show him and whether he has captured the iconic figure and done them or their story justice. I also love to see what they choose to focus on, do they capture the whole story of the person, or do they omit parts I would consider important, do they stick to fact or do they go for a magnified version, this job I guess falls to the writer. For J. Edgar my hopes were high. You have who I believe has without a doubt proven himself to be a brilliant character actor, Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. You have Clint Eastwood directing (of whom I could spend the rest of this review listing off his achievements.) Then there is also the writer Dustin Lance Black who won an Oscar for his excellent screenplay for the brilliant MILK on the life of political activist Harvey Milk. The result… a fascinating take on a fascinating man, though just like the man the film too is not without its faults.
The film follows the career and personal life of the man who made the FBI what it is today, J. Edgar Hoover. The film focuses on his early career as he sets out, encouraged further by his ambitious mother (Judi Dench) to achieve the greatness he is so destined to do. From the off it is clear Hoover has great ability and pushes for the change to focus greater resources on fingerprinting and alternative detective methods, moulding the FBI into one of the most efficient forces on the planet, a planet which he sees as constantly posing a threat to his beloved United States. The film often is narrated by the older Hoover dictating his memoirs and looking back and forward to his legacy. The film covers many of the high profile moments of Hoover’s career, but also poses many questions over the methods used to achieve them.
The other side to this film is the personal struggles of the man himself and also his close relationship to his personal assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Hoover at times is arrogant and vindictive yet at others nervous and emotionally torn. It is hard not to admire his dedication to something he believes in so strongly, but this admiration is stretched at every point when you see the dedication is to the detriment of those around him. Hoover was also clearly a torn man when it came to his sexuality, and for someone who was quick to use peoples secrets against them, especially with many of the Presidents, it’s difficult sometimes to feel sympathy for him. However some of the scenes between Hoover and Tolson are very moving and for a man whose business was to know everyone else’s secrets, it’s sad that the person he knew least about was himself.
DiCaprio has not done a bad film in a long long time, and this film continues his trend of putting in brilliant performances. I felt he captured both the younger and elder Hoover excellently and he’s only let down in my opinion by the makeup which at times I found a tad unbelievable. Especially the elder Clyde Tolson who I thought looked like a bad waxwork model, however considering the heavy makeup, they maybe even deserve more credit for getting the performances to shine through. Eastwood puts in another excellent directorial display, the film has a great feel to it and with any Eastwood film the musical score is brilliant. What does let the film down slightly for me is sadly the writing. The film moves often between the younger and elder Hoover and often not in chronological order which I found led to the film feeling like it wasn’t going anywhere with any pace at points, however this was only a few moments. I also think it was simply a difficult job to fit in the story of a man who played a prominent role for close to 50 years. I read somewhere else that it would have been brilliant as a 3 or 4 part miniseries and I can completely see this. However Black does a great job on the portrayals of Hoover’s personal struggles.
For me the star of the film is Hoover himself, and it is worth watching the film just to make your own opinion on the man. Where the film shines is not the recreations of investigations, so I wouldn’t expect a heavily fact laden film based on these. However it’s difficult not to be fascinated by the man and his internal struggles, and I found this at moments quite touching, more than I did the shock at some of the methods he used, whether this is what I was meant to feel I’m not sure, but it’s a credit to the film that it leaves you to make your own mind up. A fascinating look at a man who knew everything about everyone, whilst struggling to know himself.
Martin Barker works in the café bar and when not struggling to balance your meals from the kitchen to the table or watching films, he enjoys live music and exploring new places.