Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar is not your average biopic - mostly because J. Edgar Hoover was not your average man. He was director of the Bureau of Investigation and later the FBI for over fifty years; during that time he instituted a centralised finger-printing lab, presided over the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping, and waged war against 'subversives and radicals', mostly under the banner of the fight against Communism. It eventually came to light that Hoover was massively exceeding his jurisdiction, collecting evidence illegally, and creating secret files on political leaders (which were destroyed after his death by his secretary Helen Gandy, played in J.Edgar by Naomi Watts).
J. Edgar tells the story of Hoover's rise to power, but it becomes clear as we watch that what the film is really interested in is his personal life. Ably played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Hoover is presented as a closeted gay man unable to deal with his desires. The film also suggests a platonic gay relationship between Hoover and his deputy director Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer (who you will remember as the 'Winklevii' from David Fincher's The Social Network). While rumours and conjecture about Hoover's sexuality have abounded since the 1940s, it has never been conclusively proved that he was gay, or that he had a relationship with Tolson. There's no smoke without fire, however, and there was a hell of a lot of smoke surrounding the two men (I don't have room in this review to go into it all; check out Hoover's Wikipedia page for more information). And so, J. Edgar presents the secret relationship as fact, portraying Hoover as a powerful man with a distinguished (if controversial) career, haunted by his inability to accept his own sexuality.
The onscreen relationship between Hoover and Tolson is quite well done, but not nearly strained enough. An angst ridden, unfulfilled onscreen relationship is ample opportunity for clandestine awkwardness and meaningful silences, but these are never made use of with great effect. There is one very good emotional scene in which glasses and punches are thrown, but the relationship has been made into the crux of the film, and it's just not strong enough to hold it up single handed for two and a half hours - plus, there is little else to back it up with.
Many biopics use the trope of the protagonist looking back on their life in old age (in the case of Hoover, he is narrating his political career to a series of young male typists), but few manage to do it with such fragmentary confusion as J. Edgar. I'm not saying we need the year to flash up on the screen every five minutes, just that the jumping back and forth between time periods should be done with a little more care. There are a couple of significant straight cuts between 'old' Hoover/Tolson and 'young' Hoover/Tolson (a particularly good one shows the old pair getting into an elevator, and then the young pair getting out) but for much of the film the framing device seems almost arbitrary; a chronological biopic would perhaps have been far more direct and effective.
The quality of the make-up used to transform DiCaprio and Hammer from thirty-somethings to seventy-somethings really isn't good enough to sustain the amount of time they spend onscreen as their 'old' selves; the actors were clearly being inhibited by the amount of putty they had spread over their faces. DiCaprio is not at his finest in this film, but his average performance these days is still another man's powerhouse. He gets the voice down exactly, drawling away in a perfect early 20th century East Coast twang, but even this gradually becomes a hindrance to the film. There is altogether too much talking in J. Edgar; Eastwood knew he was onto a good thing with DiCaprio's voice and overused it to distraction. Hoover's relationship with his mother (Judi Dench) is portrayed as too close for comfort; this is on purpose, but Hoover's constant refrain of "Yes, Mother" (plus the over the top scene in which the famous transvestism rumour is touched upon) gets a little too close to the territory of Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
Unfortunately, J. Edgar is a film which forces me to use the phrase I keep in reserve for movies that might have been impressive but for a number of inescapable flaws: it had its moments. If you want to see a truly great 20th century American political film, try Frost/Nixon, or All The President's Men - J. Edgar isn't going to be joining them any time soon.