Okay — before we start, let’s address the elephant in the room: the make-up used to age Leonardo DiCaprio into a 70 year-old J Edgar Hoover is completely atrocious. DiCaprio and co-star Armie Hammer are obviously wearing rubber masks with visible seams and expressions of consternation sculpted into their foreheads. The standard of the make-up is so bad that it makes old Biff from Back to the Future II look like a plausible granddad. The obvious artifice threatens to destroy some of the more poignant scenes in the film and it seems ridiculous that ANYONE involved with the movie that saw the early footage would have approved it at all!
Okay. Now that we don’t need to mention the make-up again, it has to be said that Clint Eastwood’s latest film is actually very good. As mentioned, DiCaprio plays the J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous founder of the FBI and in his day, one of the most powerful men in America. The action takes place in the sixties, through the Kennedy/Nixon era, with Hoover dictating his memoirs to a revolving cast of young bureau agents. He recounts his experiences including the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping, (dubbed The Crime of the Century by the press) and the rise of the G-Men in their war against organised crime.
However, 50 years on, the enduring part of Hoover’s legacy may be the rumour that he wore women’s clothing in private. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black explicitly supposes Hoover as a closeted homosexual. With Black having won the Oscar for penning Gus Van Sant’s Milk, one would expect J. Edgar to be an examination of a powerful man’s repressed sexuality but it turns out to be much more than that. Hoover is played as a man obsessed with his public image: desperate to be feared, respected and adored in equal measure. He raises his office chair with hardback books so that interviewees would literally have to look up to him and he commissions a series of comic books featuring himself as the hero. His vanity takes over as he insists on publicly taking credit for bureau successes and high profile criminal arrests. He is staunchly anti-gay within his own department but relies heavily on his deputy and confidante Clyde Tolson, (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer) whom the film has also clearly defined as gay. A fascinating bag of contradictions, Hoover is played sharply and persuasively by DiCaprio, whose eternally boyish features still remain his worst enemy as he continues to develop as an actor.
Eastwood directs as he always does – with purpose and strength. The elegant design seamlessly moves from the 20s through to the 60s without drawing attention away from the performances – the sort of restraint that that has defined Eastwood’s latter-day career. As a portrait of a historically enigmatic character, J. Edgar digs beneath the surface of the legend – dramatising details that almost certainly can not be proven as fact. Eastwood and Black may not reveal the absolute truth of the man, but they certainly make a compelling argument.
It’s a shame about the make-up, though.