J Edgar Hoover was the Bureau of Investigation from 1924 until his death in 1972, a period in which he played the key role in shaping an institution that came to be known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1935 onwards. Clint Eastwood’s treatment of the man attempts to shed light on one of the most notorious political figures of twentieth century America, known as much now for his persecution of innocent political activists (regardless of affiliation) and illegal means of evidence gathering as he is for his alleged affair with Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer).
Yet Eastwood ultimately fails in doing the subject material the justice it deserves due to an unfocused script and one- dimensional pacing. The film is presented as a series of flashbacks as Hoover (Leonardo Dicaprio) retells his life story to a series of young agent stenographers. It jumps back to the early days of his career before it was known as the FBI, through to the Lindberghbaby kidnapping case, taking in brief conversations with Nixon, up until the final weeks of his life. The film, told from Hoover’s point of view, provides insight into the careful manipulation of the public image of Hoover and the fudging of facts (or downright lies) he promoted in order to further the name of both himself and the institution he created. These include the capture of Dillinger and the Bureau’s work with Warner Bros to promote the agency in the 30’s in order to balance the slew of gangster films it had released.
And yet, in attempting to incorporate so many of the controversies that Hoover was involved in, the film loses focus mainly due to the stagnant pacing throughout. Couple this with the flashback structure of the film between present day and 1919 and one becomes exhausted yet strangely apathetic towards the man and the events. This is all before the relationship between Hoover and the handsome Clyde Tolson, his long time companion who went on to inherit his estate, is even mentioned to the audience. Despite this there are good things to be said for the film. The costumes, props and set design are first rate and do a masterful job of taking the viewer through the decades.
The performances, particularly from Leonardo Dicaprio are all strong, although Naomi Watts’ character, Helen Gandy, is strangely unwritten, her unerring support for Hoover never fully explained. However, the script, penned by Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for his Harvey Milk work), depicted the relationship between Hoover and Tolson in a suitably nuanced manner giving insight into Hoover the conflicted moralist. Eastwood has created a stodgy, well acted, beautiful looking, but ultimately flawed biopic of J. Edgar Hoover that fails to do justice to either the complexity of character or the significance of events that he was involved in.