Leonardo DiCaprio has the most brilliant knack of making every film he stars in unmissable. Romeo and Juliet, Titanic, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island… I mean, really. So it was a given that J. Edgar was going to be a big, fat hit, says Katie Byrne.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, this biopic is a delicate portrayal of one of the most powerful men in American history. Edgar (as he was known) is largely credited as the driving force who transformed the FBI from a stuttering organisation into a global crime-cracking unit. Armed with a brilliant mind and a fearless dedication to his work, Hoover essentially gave his life to the job – he never married and never had children. These choices led to an intense flurry of speculation which Edgar furiously worked to crush; arguably, however, he was married – to his work.
The film flits between the past glory days of Hoover’s career and the present, where he is an elderly man who is telling his various stories to eager young FBI agents who are writing his memoirs. Through these various memories, Edgar as a whole character is projected on to the screen. DiCaprio’s Hoover is confident but nervy; he trusts no one and suspects everyone. He is a mummy’s boy who puts on her flapper’s dress and necklace when she dies (yes, really); he’s a nervous wreck around girls who proposes to the first one he gets alone in the library (again, yes, really – she turns him down). He keeps files on U.S. presidents; he begs his assistant to destroy them when he dies.
The relationship between Hoover and Armie Hammer’s Tolson is the one enduring quality of the film; as social policies and practices change over the decades, Tolson is the one remaining constant in Edgar’s life. Whilst there was never any proof of the sexual relationship between them, Eastwood is evidently pretty keen to, at the very least, pretend that there was. They kiss, they hold hands; they work in close proximity together; they go for dinner every night. On Edgar’s death, the elderly, stroke-ridden Tolson lies on the floor next to his friend’s body, sobbing. Seeing both DiCaprio and Hammer transformed from Hollywood heart-throbs into paunchy, liver-spotted old men is fascinating: both actors utterly owned their characters.
You don’t need a particular interest in U.S. history to sit through this, although it is a great tour de force of 20th century America. My only real criticism of the movie lies in its tendency to flit, confusingly, from incident to incident, with no real explanation of what’s just happened. One moment a Kennedy brother is on screen (with a ridiculous but totally edible accent), the next Richard Nixon pops up, the next Edgar is watching a silhouetted sex video. Or something.
It’s also pretty irritating to sit through most of the film only to be told by Tolson – who has read Edgar’s memoirs – that much of what we’ve seen is lies. It wasn’t Edgar who arrested the Lindenbergh kidnapper, it wasn’t Edgar who apprehended a gun-toting villain – it was always someone else. But no one was – or could have been – quite as interesting as the man himself.
In cinemas now.