It may surprise viewers of “J. Edgar” to hear this, but J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was actually one of the most feared men of the 20th Century. Many of his tactics while running the FBI, such as the illegal use of wiretapping, destroyed people’s lives and reputations. He illegally taped many of his superiors and their families as well as some of the greatest political figures of the day including Martin Luther King. He also had the FBI provide information to Sen. Joseph McCarthy to make the notorious McCarthy Hearings possible, one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history.
Of course, Hoover is also responsible for the FBI’s war against the Mafia and Gangsters in the 1930s which helped justify the need for the FBI. And then President Truman credited the FBI for making sure the nation was almost completely free of foreign espionage during WW II (at the same time Hoover also wanted to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and detain 12,000 “suspected” Americans). And through it all Hoover was a private and complicated man taking many secrets about his own life to the grave. However, the idea that he was in power for over 37 years, under six presidents, is quite remarkable. Now, 39 years after his death, enter Clint Eastwood and Dustin Lance Black’s “J. Edgar,” an epic and very, very speculative biopic about the director.
“J. Edgar” wants to tell Hoover’s story, but because so little of his personal life has been corroborated (or even discredited) it mostly feels like a fantasy. Did he have a relationship with his longtime no 2. Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer)? Did his mother (Judi Dench) really put a seed of self hate over his possible homosexuality in his mind? Was he really driven to protect the country from whomever he considered a “radical” more than any other domestic threat? Did he plan on asking Dorothy Lamour to marry him? Did he really blackmail every president except Nixon, Johnson and Eisenhower to stay in office? Your guess is as good as Black’s best guess. It’s certainly all possible and makes an intriguing portrait, but it’s about as “true” as a film or mini-series about Queen Elizabeth I set in the 16th Century. Moreover, the film tiptoes around so many of his more nefarious deeds (the ’50s and McCarthy are barely mentioned) that the picture slowly transforms into a portrait meant to justify Hoover’s controversial life. It’s troubling to realize some audiences who don’t know that much about Hoover’s history before seeing the film, will take a good chunk of it as fact. That’s not the sort of film you’d expect from Clint Eastwood, is it? Well, luckily for the industry icon, Leonardo DiCaprio almost completely saves the day.
DiCaprio is pretty fantastic in “J. Edgar” keeping the viewer’s interest when they might question some of the historical facts at play. He does a superb job of aging Hoover from 1918 to 1972 (something he might not have been able to pull off a decade ago) and he seems to be telling more in his eyes about Hoover’s true sexual nature than Eastwood wants to commit to in his direction. He also, remarkably, somehow pulls off the most unnecessary scene of the film; a moment where Hoover, distraught over the death of his mother, puts her necklace and dress on over his clothes and stares at himself in a mirror. It’s a nod to the rumors of Hoover’s alleged cross dressing, but in context it’s somewhat bizarre. And yet, DiCaprio and Eastwood make it come and go as quickly as possible.
In the context of Oscar, it’s now obvious the best actor race will come down to Clooney and DiCaprio. This pundit prefers the startling work of Michael Fassbender in “Shame,” but that performance’s win will likely be the nomination. DiCaprio has never won an Academy Award, but Clooney arguably is the best he’s ever been in “The Descendants.” He also is a prime contender for the two-time Oscar winner club (not that it will be at the forefront of most voters minds). DiCaprio is a three-time nominee who many mistakenly assume is already a winner when he isn’t. Is it his time to actually grace the Kodak Theater stage? The Weinstein Company will have a legitimate shot with Jean Dujardin, but it’s just hard to see him overtaking Clooney or DiCaprio in the last lap.
As for the rest of the cast, Hammer is fine as Tolson, but his “Oscar” scene is not his finest moment (over the top and out of character). I honestly don’t see him getting a nod at this point. As for Dench, she’s very good, but she’ll likely be remembered by voters more for her upbeat and scene stealing role in “My Week with Marilyn.” Naomi Watts is fine as Hoover’s longtime assistant Helen Gandy, but there isn’t much of an arc to her character and you forget she’s in the film most of the time.
In other categories, the original screenplay category is always the weakest of the two screenwriting awards and this year is no different. “Edgar” could sneak in on Black’s notoriety alone. And if the movie is a hit? Chances are it will find a way into the five. Make-Up is actually very competitive this year, but the work on DiCaprio’s Hoover deserves some recognition.
“J. Edgar” opens nationwide on Nov. 7. It expands nationwide on Nov. 9.
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