Following the huge successes of Catch Me if You Can, The Aviator and now J. Edgar – and with a rumoured Sinatra biopic in the works – Leonardo DiCaprio may be giving Michael Sheen a run for his money as a one-man biopic powerhouse. His turn in Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, playing the charming and (famously) sexually ambiguous head of the FBI, is right up there with some of his very best performances. Sadly it’s not quite enough to make J. Edgar the Oscar shoo-in it clearly strives to be – although it does go some way to redeeming the film.
Hoover’s final years provide the framework of the film, as he dictates his memoirs to a succession of bright-eyed young staffers. It’s a simple device, perhaps not particularly original, but it does in fact work well here – largely because the scenes of an elderly Hoover contain a lot more than just wistful, nostalgic gazes. Even in his twilight years, Hoover bore exactly the same tenacity and devotion to his work and politics that had characterised his early days with the FBI. In terms of Hoover’s career highlights, there’s a focus on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, which is probably the most interesting aspect of J. Edgar – Eastwood provides a lively, intriguing guide to the birth of the FBI’s most ground-breaking scientific methods, most notably fingerprinting.
Where J. Edgar falls down, though, is in the portrayal of Hoover’s relationship with right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) – which is unfortunate, since it very clearly posits this is the story’s core. The suggestions of a homosexual undercurrent are hardly subtle – there’s a wrestling scene that’s just a log fire and a spot of full-frontal nudity away from Women in Love – and, as a result, the whole thing ends up looking a bit cheap. Eastwood is desperate for us to spot the repressed desire between these two men – but he needn’t worry, since it’s not exactly hard to miss. It’s a shame so much emphasis is placed on the sex question, as it overtakes any kind of profound emotional connection they might have had. Despite Hammer’s best efforts, we’re never really made to feel very much about Tolson, or exactly why the two men were so close.
Much the same problem occurs with Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts), Hoover’s unswerving loyal secretary. Having sworn off marriage in favour of her career, Gandy has no discernable personal life – which means we never really learn anything about her. Gandy’s interactions with Hoover are stiff, formal, barely hinting at any kind of closeness between them; we are made to simply accept the level of trust that he puts in her. It doesn’t help that Watts herself does so little to flesh out Gandy’s character: her stilted performance in the movie is far weaker than we’ve come to expect from the actress. Judi Dench, playing Edgar’s overbearing mother, puts in a reliably solid performance – but then, this is the kind of role she could in her sleep.
That a couple of the key peripheral characters are so disappointing, however, isn’t quite enough to fully take down a movie like this. In the big-name biopic, it’s the central performance that matters most – and in this respect the film really does deliver. DiCaprio, playing perhaps his weightiest role yet, seals his reputation as one of today’s finest working actors – with hints of even more greatness to come. It’s thanks almost entirely to his remarkable and utterly compelling gravitas that J. Edgar is – despite all its flaws – nonetheless worth watching.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Cast: Leonardo Di Caprio, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer
Runtime: 137 minutes