Reviewed by Kevin Finnerty:
“Sometimes you need to bend the rules a little to keep your country safe.” That’s J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) explaining to his right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) his philosophy of what it takes to protect the country in the dramatic film J. Edgar.
Clint Eastwood’s movie about the man who’s credited with turning the FBI into what it is today: an extremely efficient, crime-fighting organization, focuses on both Hoover’s love for his country and wanting to protect it from all its enemies as well as his drive and determination to obtain power and never lose it. The film goes back and forth in time while chronicling Edgar’s career in the FBI.
Hoover, as a young man, is ambitious and determined to protect the country against communists. And as the new director to the FBI appearing before congress to get money, arms and the materials his agents need to go up against the deadly gangsters of the 1930s, he’s passionate and persuasive. In his later years, the director of the FBI becomes more and more paranoid, trusting only his personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who’s in charge of all his personnel files, and his right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) who he shares more than just a passion for justice with.
Based on the life of Hoover, J. Edgar is a historical drama that has some solid performances, especially from Leonardo DiCaprio as the young, awkward man striving to protect his country from socialist radicals. It’s unfortunate, however, that his performance as the older, more cautious and power-hungry Edgar doesn’t hold up, partly due to the horrible make-up used to age him. The same can be said for Naomi Watts as his dedicated secretary and especially Armie Hammer, whose make-up is so incredibly terrible in the later part of the film it distracts and ruins the drama happening up on the big screen.
Another big problem with the movie is the mere size and scope of the story it’s trying to tell. Eastwood tries to squeeze almost 50 years of both Hoover’s career and the formation of the FBI into just a little over two hours. As a result, there’s not much substance or depth to many of the other characters. A perfect example of this is Helen Gandy. The film first introduces her as a flirty, attractive young professional who seems to have an eye on the young-and-upcoming Mr. Hoover. After a few dates and a clumsy, awkward, yet sincere advance from Edgar in the Library of Congress, Miss Gandy makes it clear she’s only interested in forwarding her career and riding on his coat tails. Not long after, he makes her his personal secretary and the two of them spend the next nearly 50 years working together, with Gandy being the keeper and protector of his infamous secret files. There is never an attempt in the film to explain or show why Miss Gandy becomes so dedicated, loyal and caring of Edgar and his needs up to and even after his death.
Overly ambitious, slow and ponderous at times, J. Edgar is a film that should have taken the moviegoer into the fascinating world of the birth of the FBI and the man who had the vision and determination to create one of the greatest law enforcement agencies of all time despite many obstacles. Instead, the film delivers an all too familiar story of a once good and dedicated individual who becomes completely corrupted by his lust for power.
J. Edgar was released on November 11, 2011 and is rated R for brief strong language.