There’s a sameness to movie biographies these days. They usually have high-profile directors and big stars and they look sharp and they rarely unfold in straight chronological order. “J. Edgar” has all that and one more thing — really bad makeup.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover, America’s top cop for almost 50 years. The film bounces back and forth through Hoover’s life — sometimes in a confusing fashion — as the senior Hoover tells his story to an agent who is writing it all down for a book.
The story focuses on four individuals: Hoover; his domineering mother (Judi Dench); his loyal secretary Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts); and his best friend and second-in-command at the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Obviously you can’t cover a full life like Hoover’s in two hours, so director Clint Eastwood chose to focus on the personal side more than the historical. For instance, Hoover’s dealings with the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, as well as the FBI’s “War on Crime” in the gangster era, are given short shrift. The film does spend a lot of time examining Hoover’s handling of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the case which helped launch him into the spotlight.
Hoover is presented as a driven, determined man with a fair amount of paranoia and self-loathing due to his forbidden (by the times, but especially by his mother) sexual urges. While he proposes marriage with Grandy on their first date, it’s clear his true passion is for Tolson. Only Tolson is more willing to be forthright about it.
“J. Edgar” is not one of the great film biographies, but it’s not bad. The story’s a bit choppy and the time shifts are sometimes confusing. Some of the personal scenes bordered on being too melodramatic.
The actors are fine and the movie looks good — with the notable exception of some of the makeup. DeCaprio looks acceptable as old Hoover but Hammer looks freakish, almost zombie-like as old Tolson.
Did it work for me? Meh. Some of it I liked, some I didn’t. If you’re a history buff and like biographies, it might be worth your time.