J Edgar must have been a tough one for its producers to sell; Americans place a premium on patriotism but this bitter biopic of the former head of the FBI offers few reasons for fist pumping.
It’s a humourless, two and a quarter hour-long love-triangle between the Oedipal title character, his dessicated mother and his assistant.
Director Clint Eastwood paints Hoover as an obsessive – possibly autistic, certainly suffering from undiagnosed mental distress – intent on destroying Communist forces within the US. His obsession with covert Red agents is even tentatively put forward as an explanation for his harassment of civil rights activists (he once tried to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr into turning down the Nobel Peace Prize).
Eastwood’s Hoover, though, isn’t motivated by an altruistic love of his country but a desperate need for acceptance. He willfully lies in his autobiography and happily takes the credit for the work of others; partly for posterity but mostly to please his mother.
Judie Dench plays Mrs Hoover as if she were starring in a prequel to Psycho, set shortly before the corpse of Mrs Bates is transported to a rocking chair in the attic: she’s terrifying. Her quietly menacing, ultra-conservative presence ripples uncomfortably throughout the film.
Leonardo DiCaprio makes the pill slightly easier to swallow, bringing an element of charm to an otherwise charmless man. His portrayal of Hoover as an older man (the film charts his ascendency from ambitious 24-year-old through to his somewhat undignified death) is astonishing, in no small part down to outstanding make-up artistry.
Eastwood’s flair for uncomfortable silences is amply demonstrated. Hoover’s inability to accept the truth about his gay relationship with Clive Tolson – which is handled with commendable delicacy – is shown through a series of lingering shots of DiCaprio’s tortured face.
For the most part, the film is steadfastly ambivalent about its subject. His work in establishing the FBI is lauded but few justifications are made for his innumerable flaws. The experience leaves you thinking you probably wouldn’t want to spend, say, two and a quarter hours in his company. But J Edgar remains an original take on a fascinating, if rather unpleasant, figure in American’s living history.
First published in City A.M.