Hero, monster, human

Film review: J. Edgar (Director: Clint Eastwood)

By Sascha Krieger

Making a film about the life of legendary, and to many, notorious, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, in his time one of the most powerful people in the United States, is not easy. Too divided are opinions about the man, too high are the emotions running still. Trying to portrait of Hoover is an attempt at which one can only lose. Clint Eastwood has tried and he has at least not failed entirely. As flawed as the film is, it at least presents a sketch, if not a full portrait, which offers food for thought and discussion.

The fanatic control freak driven by equal fear and hatred of everything he considered extremist is here reduced to an insecure, complex-ridden, Oedipus-like figure trying to compensate for his own self-disgust. It is a view that mostly reduces Hoover’s motivation to the private, his low self-esteem, the adoration and fear of the dominating mother (memorable: Dame Judy Dench), his problematic sexuality. This Hoover is less a political fanatic than a man seeking attention, ultimately seeking love, yet always half believing he does not deserve it. For the right he might be too unheroic, for the left too human. This Hoover, created by Eastwood and brought to life by an impressive Leonardo DiCaprio may be sitting between all chairs, but there is some plausibility to him.

At the heart of the film are his two major relationships: with his mother and with his friend, assistant and love of his life Clyde (Armie Hammer). Hoover’s rumored homosexuality is hinted at but not finally resolved. they clearly are in love but in what way remains open. DiCaprio masterfully portraits the uncertainty, the paranoia, the aggressive dominance and, yes, even the vulnerability. As flawed as he was, as dangerous as he may have been – and the film does a fine job of allowing glimpses into his dubious methods, especially towards Democratic presidents such as Roosevelt and Kennedy, he was a human being who knew pain as much as he knew love.

The film’s problems lie elsewhere: Eastwood often excels at giving his films a very distinct atmosphere which allows the viewer to experience how the times in which the film takes place may have felt like. He fails to achieve this here. This is as best costume drama, the paranoid atmosphere of the 1920s and later the Cold war or the gangster folklore of the 1930s are talked about but not recreated. The film also fails to have much of a development. Early on, the themes are set, most of what comes later is repetition. Hoover is not allowed to grow and so the film with its different chronology – it tells Hoover’s story until the 30s and then picks up in his later years, the earlier parts subject to Hoover’s telling them to prospective biographers – let it unravel into the episodic, the fragmentary.

J. Edgar is too long, especially the last 30 minutes are increasingly painfully repetitive. Only at the very end when some of what we have seen before is revealed to be Hoover’s lies, is there a hint at what this film could also have been: an intelligent study of appearance and reality, about a man writing and re-writing his own life. As it stands, it is a convincing sketch of Hoover but little more.

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