Clint Eastwood hits the history trail again for this strange, dark and ambivalent biopic of J Edgar Hoover, the man who made the FBI and its predecessor, the Bureau of Investigations, his fiefdoms for a large part of the twentieth century. Just as Hoover operated in the shadows of Washington for more than 50 years, so Eastwood’s film exists in the half-dark: he and writer Dustin Lance Black (‘Milk’) flit between the beginning of Hoover’s career in the 1920s and its twilight in the 1960s, always returning to the muted, brown tones and sombre ambience of his office. Faces are half-lit and rooms feel starved of sun. Hoover’s character, too, struggles to remain obscured from the glare of truth.
‘J Edgar’ is also smart enough to cast a shadow over hard facts. Versions of events remain versions, a viewpoint stressed by the framing device of Hoover narrating his unreliable memoirs to younger FBI agents. The film is more interested in offering a thoughtful character study than delivering hard-and-fast reconstructions. It gives us Leonardo DiCaprio, first fresh-faced, later caked in make-up, as Hoover: a man of strong moral principles willing to resort to immoral ‘rule-bending’ to see his will carried out.
DiCaprio’s Hoover is arrogant but nervy, quick to lose control emotionally if he loses power in public or private. It’s a push-and-pull portrait when it comes to our sympathy. We understand his enthusiasm for forensic science and an FBI run as a meritocracy but recoil at his willingness to blackmail presidents and attempt to persuade Martin Luther King to turn down the Nobel Peace Prize. One can only surmise on Eastwood and Black’s individual opinions of Hoover, but one imagines that their perspectives on his long career may complement each other and meet in the middle to offer a biopic that is unusually layered and two-headed. One suspects Eastwood as the more conservative influence on Black’s youthful revisionism.
The film is sympathetic both to Hoover’s ambition and patriotism and the personal dynamics that defined his character for good or ill. The latter include the love of an overpowering mother, played with an Oedipal flirtatiousness by Judi Dench, and, most provocatively, the constant presence of a personal and professional companion, Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer. Considering some of the wilder accusations thrown at Hoover in the past, including orgies and cross-dressing in public, the coy hand-holding between Tolson and Hoover, and one scene in which he tries on his mother’s dress after her death, feel respectful and restrained. We’re left with a pleasing, intelligent film happy to describe Hoover’s behaviour as monstrous but too balanced and searching to damn him as a monster.