With so much material to choose from (career, filing innovations, politics, sexuality, “secret files”), it is near-impossible to chronicle the life of J. Edgar Hoover in a feature film. Using flashback and non-linear storytelling, writer Dustin Lance Black has come up with a quickly paced narrative that delves into the fabled life of the founder then czar of the FBI. Given the challenge of bringing five decades of events to the screen, director Clint Eastwood took a gamble that having his principals remain constant to their roles could be accomplished by 21st century makeup techniques. On the surface, that decision ought to payoff big time in the drama consistency file; as it turns out, going down that cinematic path is the film’s major flaw.
Leonardo DiCaprio makes a valiant, at times heroic, selfless attempt (his ugliness in death is a visual knockout) to get under the skin of the ambitious bully who had no qualms about re-writing history to suit his incredibly self-centred ego. (The “and now I have arrested the criminals amongst us” sequence is one of many vignette gems that gleam ever-so-brightly over the generous runtime.) Under the careful eye of production designer James J. Murakami, Sian Grigg and Duncan Jarman have aged America’s top cop magnificently: from jowls to receding hairline to expansive girth, Hoover looks his age in every incarnation. Sadly, DiCaprio doesn’t have the vocal range to complete the transformation, resulting in the feeling of caricature: the actor is playing dressup (famously at one point slipping on mommy’s frock and pearls …) rather than suspending our disbelief. A further problem—and key to the core of Hoover’s personality—is the manner in which the gay card is played. Sure there is a kiss and a near-silent declaration of love, but the queer chemistry—looks laden with aching desire, gestures that should speak volumes—is MIA, creating a feeling of two boys playing house rather than on the verge of carnal knowledge most foul (according to the generally accepted mores of the time). In the subtle underscoring of the unfolding wants and needs of Hoover, the snippets from J.S. Bach serve a certain purpose, but more effectively could have been replaced with bits of solo piano repertoire from the Impressionists to further blur the lines of false fronts and truth.
Playing associate director and constant companion Clyde Polson, Armie Hammer starts off as a far more believable gay blade, yet his aging is so severe he appears to be a walking zombie rather than faithful-to-the-grave partner in crime and lust. A late-inning stroke provides some exquisite moments of character revelation (Hoover chides the afflicted man’s speech impediment) only to have the debilitating effects vanish completely—it’s a miracle, indeed!—in every subsequent scene.
The ablest of the generation travellers is most certainly Naomi Watts. Playing Hoover’s short-lived date then life-long personal assistant Helen Gandy, Watts (this time with a major assist from makeup wizard Alessandro Bertolazzi) is marvellously understated, understanding and stoic as she covers up the nasty bits of her employer’s private life and frequent blackmail-for-power escapades.
Kudos also to Judi Dench who is fully aware of her famous son’s predilection but will never stoop to accept his lavender tendencies, much less repay his familial devotion with anything that resembles unequivocal love.
The historical backdrop (from Roosevelt to Nixon) and brushes with celebrity (Emily Alyn Lind makes for a delightfully precocious Shirley Temple) keep the mind engaged and the eye entertained, but an overarching portrayal of the man who singlehandedly developed one of the world’s most efficient/notorious crime-fighting organizations must await another day. JWR