J. Edgar Hoover was the face of the FBI for decades, the man who fought against gangsters, kidnappers, and bank robbers, who gave us the FBI as we know it today. “J. Edgar” is an awkward, uncomfortable film profiling this often awkward, uncomfortable man. Eastwood is a gifted director, and here he works with gifted actors to create a thoughtful, thorough character study.
A number of storylines from different periods of Hoover’s life are woven through the film, giving it an almost dreamlike quality as it flickers back and forth, mixing flashbacks with tales told by Hoover to a series of young agents from the FBI’s public relations department. We see how as a young, ambitious man, Hoover worked his way up to the head of the Bureau and then set about turning it into a force to be reckoned with through political maneuvering and sheer will.
The Hoover Eastwood gives us is a creature of opposites: he created a centralized database to help catch criminals, but also bent plenty of rules in the course of his investigations. We see him give impassioned, powerful testimony to Congress and then find himself flummoxed by interpersonal communication in private.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives a phenomenal performance, bringing this complicated, troubled man to life and nailing emotional scenes even through layers of old-age makeup. The rest of the cast rise to his level — Armie Hammer as Hoover’s closest companion and confidante, Dame Judy Dench as Hoover’s beloved mother, and Naomi Watts as Hoover’s personal secretary and secret-keeper.
Eastwood has a fantastic eye for visuals, and “J. Edgar” is lush with costumes from various periods and perfectly-dressed sets. Even more important, the art of making actors look like older versions of themselves has come a long way in the last few years. It’s still clearly makeup, of course. It seems unlikely that we’ll be able to age people’s faces realistically with latex any time soon. Even so, the prosthetics here some of the best I’ve seen in quite a while.
This isn’t a film to see if you’re looking for action — yes, there are moments where we see some of the gunfights and arrests Hoover and his men were famous for, but this is an oddly-paced character study, not a crime thriller. The strange pacing works if given a chance; Hoover was a complex person, and Eastwood reveals him to us in uneven dribs and drabs, sidling in close before shying away again. It’s much like getting to know someone in reality — you don’t learn all about a person right away, especially not someone as private and paranoid as Hoover.
Given how aggressively Hoover crafted his public persona, it’s hard to know how much of the film’s portrayal of the man’s personal life is accurate and how much is speculation. Regardless, this is an intriguing, well-crafted film with top-notch performances and glorious historical details. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you’re one of the folks it’s aimed at, you won’t be disappointed.