In 1924 J. Edgar Hoover was appointed Director of the Bureau of Investigation. He was instrumental in founding the successor organisation (the FBI) in 1935 and in establishing its scientific approach. In total, Hoover amassed 47 in years in charge, surviving numerous presidents and political events. All of this should make for an exciting movie: and so enters J. Edgar. Tracing Hoover’s rise in political power, J. Edgar examines his role in key political events, the secrecy surrounding his private life, and his relationships with those closest to him.
Unfortunately, one of the most striking things about the opening to J. Edgar are the rather unconvincing rubber faces and fat suits designed to make the cast look older than their years. The make-up is certainly a distraction the film could do without. But it is more than just the film’s aesthetics that make the first half of J. Edgar a test in the ability to re-frame expectations.
J. Edgar’s promotional trailer suggests a dynamic, fast paced plot and at first this makes the the film’s slow burning reality a little disappointing. Neither does the film have a clear, linear plot structure. Instead, Hoover’s life is explored in a discontinuous fashion with frequent time shifts – a structure which chops up the chronology of J. Edgar Hoover’s career, and introduces both public and private events in what feels at first like no particular order. Perhaps this style is designed to illustrate the dis-jointed nature of memories themselves, but this doesn’t quite translate. The result is a confusing set up of the film’s purpose and focus.
The variety of time shift periods also makes the numerous subplots difficult to follow without at least a basic grounding in American politics during Hoover’s career. At times this results in J. Edgar feeling somewhat tedious, teetering on the edge of boring, and crying out for a sense of story direction. A stand out performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, however, rescues J. Edgar from the realm of mediocre biopics. DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hoover’s inner struggles with sexuality are compelling and, particularly in scenes with Hoover’s mother (played by Judi Dench), DiCaprio makes it impossible not to feel empathy. The Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild Award nominations that DiCaprio has received for his lead role in the film are well deserved.
On adjusting expectations to the much slower than advertised pace and the film’s stylistic choices, J. Edgar becomes enjoyable and settles into a comfortable rhythm. Interestingly, none of the main characters (J. Edgar, Clyde Tolson and Helen Gandy) form lasting peer relationships outside their trilogy. Instead all are unmarried, career focussed individuals. It is in the personal moments between these characters where J. Edgar is most insightful, concerning itself with themes of loyalty and friendship. And, despite the questionable make-up, scenes set at end of J. Edgar Hoover’s career are touching. Hoover’s unwillingness to accept the limitations of age is moving, whilst the fear for his own legacy feels both poignant and disturbing.
On the whole, it is difficult to really get excited about J. Edgar, but equally hard to dislike it. A decent biopic with a solid performance from DiCaprio, J. Edgar would benefit from an increase in pace and a more focussed plot.
VERDICT: ✪ ✪ ✪
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