One of the most divisive figures of the 20th century, J. Edgar Hoover was a complicated man. He built the FBI and stayed in power for nearly forty years, until his death. While he recognized early on the need for a more efficient and scientific way to fight crime, it would be Hoover’s obsession with collecting secret files on presidents, their wives, and other notable figures, as well as his own personal eccentricities that history would continue to debate.
On the face of it, with Clint Eastwood in the director’s chair, and Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, J. Edgar seemed like a can’t miss project. Unfortunately, the film is occasionally dull, and plays like nothing more than a run-of-the mill biopic. To make matters worse, at times, the makeup is distractingly bad.
The structure of J. Edgar is set, as an elderly Hoover is shown dictating his life story and professional triumphs to a series of male agents for an upcoming book. We travel back to 1919, when Hoover’s boss Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) is the subject of a Bolshevik terrorist’s bomb. Determined to fight communism with all he’s got, a 20-something Hoover heads up the General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation, which would later evolve into the FBI. With the help of his devoted secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and supportive, but domineering mother, Hoover’s rise is swift. While trying to gain the agency some respect, Hoover made a name for himself by introducing law enforcement to modern forensics, taking down gangsters Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger, and solving the highly publicized Lindbergh baby kidnapping. At the time, nobody knew he was using illegal wiretaps and blackmailing presidents (and in Robert F. Kennedy’s case, Attorney General’s), to keep his job.
The problem is that while parts of the story are potentially interesting, the film spends too much time jumping around to allow an investigation of any one thing on more than a surface level. There are also several decades (namely, the 40s and 50s) missing from the story. This wouldn’t be such an issue if it weren’t for the fact that the last time we see Hoover and confidant/rumored lover Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) as young men, they’ve just had a huge argument, only for their relationship to seem perfectly fine decades later.
While Eastwood may have been afraid to delve into the personal areas of Hoover’s life—take a definitive stand on his relationship with Clyde Tolson or his bullying tactics, one also feels like the film was done in by the lack of a historical record on Hoover. The secret files? Those have been highly rumored, but Helen Gandy supposedly burned them when Hoover died and never discussed them. Hoover’s homosexuality? Widely rumored, but never confirmed. I just wonder if Eastwood understood that delving too much into the personal side of Hoover was more of a guessing game than he was willing to play. The fact of the matter is, because of Clyde Tolson and Helen Gandy’s devotion, many of Hoover’s secrets went to the grave with him.
DiCaprio manages to thrive here, crafting an emotionally complex character without being too theatrical. But as great as he is, it’s Armie Hammer who truly stands out; with much less to do, he manages to convey a myriad of emotions with just a few lines, or an expression. Judi Dench is good as always, though her character is rather one note. Unfortunately, Naomi Watts is largely wasted as loyal secretary Helen Gandy, though that should come as no surprise since she worked in the shadow of J. Edgar Hoover.
Presented in 2.40:1, Warner’s 1080p transfer has a rather bleak look to it, but it appears to Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern’s intentions. As such, vivid colors are non-existent, while black levels flourish. Details are superb, with no issues such as artifacting, black crush and edge enhancement nowhere to be found.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is solid as well, with dialogue remaining audible throughout, and the film’s jazz soundtrack given expansive range in the soundfield. Surrounds don’t get a massive workout, but that’s largely due to the movie’s sound design.
A French Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is included, as are English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The following special features are included:
- The Most Powerful Man in the World (12:50, HD) A short, yet surprisingly detailed overview of J. Edgar Hoover’s life and career. Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Denis O’Hare, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, producer Brian Grazer, executive producer Erica Huggins, producer Robert Lorenz all chime in to share their thoughts on Hoover.
- DVD Copy
- UV Digital Copy