DiCaprio wasted in an ultimately dull movie

There is a definite moral to the story with J. Edgar – that even 137 minutes of film is not nearly enough time to encompass roughly 50 years of one of the most interesting figures of the 20th century. At the same time, 137 minutes is also much too long for a film that never digs deep enough to uncover anything profound. It tantalises you with its potential but, like a child prodigy gone bad, never lives up to its promise.

It is long, overdrawn and empty, which is a shame when you have as much ammunition as J. Edgar Hoover gives you. In fact, with such an interesting story to work with, it is quite amazing that Hollywood could have produced something which is, quite frankly, so boring.

For those not au fait with their American history, J. Edgar Hoover was the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). By all accounts he revolutionised police/detective work by hiring great scientific minds and moved forward on a lot of technology thought to be ‘bunk’ back in the day – for example, fingerprinting. He was also a huge fan of wiretapping whomever he thought to be a threat to his country or himself. The legend of his personal files must drive the British tabloids crazy with the thoughts of ‘what if …’

J. Edgar is set up as a film where J. Edgar Hoover (Dicaprio) is an old man dictating  his memoirs from behind his desk to many different underlings at the FBI. The highlights and lowlights  he includes are his work against the Communists in the 1920s, his ascension to the top of the Bureau, his filing system, the Lindbergh Abduction, his scientification of the Bureau, the relationship with his mother (Dench), his ongoing feud with the Kennedys,  his obsession with catching out Martin Luther King and his secret files. Along the way he has to deal with seven different presidents with only his longtime (and only) secretary Miss Gandy (Watts) and constant companion (life partner?) and Bureau number two Clyde Tolson (Hammer).

It is important to note that Hoover is an unreliable author. There is a difference between Hoover’s memories and the actual truth. This is shown near the end of the film when Tolson pulls the rug out from under Hoover and his facts. This does help to shape how we saw the previous two hours worth of film, but is not nearly enough to save it.

The real bright spot of this film is without question Dicaprio. Whether playing the young, on-the-cutting- edge FBI director or playing the older, scheming FBI dictator, Dicaprio steals the scenes. He manages to play a character generally regarded as a huge dickhead somewhere in the middle ground. His combination of vulnerability and ruthlessness gives the impression of a man who must have absolute power or none at all.

But is Hoover a good guy or a bad guy? Is he gay, is he straight? Eastwood deliberately leaves all this very vague in hopes that the mystery will lead to intrigue. Unfortunately, in this case, it leads to wishy-washy. It needed to take a stand and get off the fence to one side or the other.

It’s disappointing to think what J. Edgar could have been if Eastwood had focused more closely on one time period or story (perhaps the Lindbergh abduction) and filled in the rest with flashbacks. This is a clumsy film, loaded down with too many awkward flashback back-and-forths and awful makeup akin to the Muppets, to really be anything more than a starting point for something better to be done on him sometime soon.

J. Edgar

Dir: Clint Eastwood;

US drama, 2011, 137 mins;Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench
Premiered January 19, playing nationwide