Director Clint Eastwood had a very tough sell with his biopic J. Edgar. The story of the very first director of the FBI was not greeted enthusiastically by either critics or moviegoers. This is the type of historical epic that is often expected to rack up Oscar nominations, yet the film didn’t earn a single one. Much of this can be explained very simply: the film is a jumbled mess that ultimately sheds little light on the importance and influence of J. Edgar Hoover. There are some interesting passages, but in the end it seems like the filmmakers just weren’t sure how to handle their subject.
The narrative follows a fractured timeline that skips somewhat erratically around Hoover’s life and career. This may be the film’s biggest failing, as I found it didn’t convey the perspective of Hoover’s time in office. He served as the FBI’s director for an astonishing thirty-seven years, but the film’s jumpy structure doesn’t really make that clear. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the title character. While he seems adequate while portraying the man’s younger years, he doesn’t pull off the older Hoover. I happen to think DiCaprio is probably the most overrated actor of his generation to begin with so I went into J. Edgar with a strong bias. But even taking that into account, I found DiCaprio’s work here to be overly deliberate and stagey. The old age makeup is, as many others have pointed out, a joke. But even considering he is often buried under completely artificial, unconvincing makeup, DiCaprio never seems comfortable in the role.
There are isolated sequences that hint at the movie J. Edgar could’ve been. When Hoover is working with Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) following the abduction of the aviator’s child, the film becomes quite gripping. But this episode is basically a side story, incidental to the overall life-spanning portrait Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have tried to create. Hoover’s accomplishments in reorganizing and prioritizing the function of the bureau are explored somewhat. The film also becomes intermittently fascinating when dealing with the controversial topic of accusations against Hoover of abuse of power and his tendencies toward self-aggrandizement. But again these strong individual scenes are shot down by the scattershot storytelling method employed by Eastwood and Black.