Still a man of mystery Perhaps it is the scope of the story or just more evidence of an iconic director’s gradual decline but “J. Edgar” while offering another powerful performance by Leonard DiCaprio doesn’t feel like a classic. Granted, to cover the life of the enigmatic Hoover as director of the FBI for over 5 decades, is a daunting, bordering on impossible task for any storyteller.
The great biopics of the past have either kept the story lines focused (as in “Capote”) and/or taken great artistic liberty to embellish certain details of specific events (such as “Schindler’s List”). In any case, “J Edgar” contains very little raw action – especially considering the subject is the last century’s most famous and powerful crime stopper. Instead, “J. Edgar” chronicles, in sometimes dizzying flashbacks, Hoover’s rise to power and the nature of his occasionally controversial personal relationships.
Director Clint Eastwood has helmed some very mediocre films (at least for him) of late including “Gran Torino,” “Hereafter,” and “Invictus” but his never less than superior skill at period detail is on full display here. Using the de-saturated color schemes similar to his work in “Flags of our Fathers” and “Changeling”, Eastwood paints a vibrant if subdued portrait of the young Hoover who grew up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington D.C. son of a domineering mother (Judi Dench) with whom he lived nearly his entire life. Becoming the bureau’s youngest director at 29, the film captures the essence of some of the more critical moments of Hoover’s career: hunting down prohibition era gangsters, his investigation of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, on up to his unrelenting collection of “secret files” in order to influence –some would say blackmail- many of this country’s most powerful leaders including the Kennedy’s, Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Clearly, however, a central objective of “J Edgar” is to examine the more mysterious aspects of Hoover’s life. His longstanding companionship with Clyde Tolsen the young aide that Hoover recruited (a gracefully strong Armie Hammer), and Hoover’s suggested if not blatant homosexual tendencies as well as rumored affections for cross-dressing, are handled with sympathy and discretion. But the final result is more an artfully crafted, impeccably acted glimpse into a man who we are still left wondering so much about.
And as much as DiCaprio loses himself in an Oscar worthy portrayal, the film often transforms us back to movie watching reality in scenes that require the lead actors to wear some fairly ghastly old age make up.
Eastwood’s films are never uninteresting and “J Edgar” follows suit, ultimately being a film that offers compelling details of a powerful but peculiar figure but the full picture remains just as enigmatic as Hoover himself.
Rated R for brief strong language.