With four time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby) directing, award winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black supplying the script, and Hollywood banker Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception) in the lead role, J. Edgar is a slick biopic which frustratingly doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts and, ultimately, disappoints.

Set in the 1960s & 70s and told from the viewpoint of J. Edgar Hoover, the longest serving FBI director in history, the film uses flashbacks to tell a story that covers five decades, eight US presidents and the creation of a major US institution.

In the 1920s & early 30s the FBI was no more than a toothless peacekeeping force with limited power and reach, that was until the Lindbergh kidnapping. Reported in 1932 as the ‘Crime of the Century’ the young son of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh was abducted, resulting in new legislation making kidnapping a federal offence, and therefore within the remit of the FBI.

Following the Kansas City Massacre in 1933, FBI Agents were granted the right to carry guns and federal laws continued to become more powerful under the leadership of Hoover. Although he was still living at home with his severe and domineering mother, chillingly portrayed by the masterful Dame Judi ‘I don’t do accents’ Dench, he professionalised the still young FBI, centralised fingerprinting and introduced forensics to police work.

In spite of the dodgy prosthetics, DiCaprio’s commanding portrayal of the original G-Man is ruthless, cold and utterly transfixing. Naomi Watts (King Kong) plays Helen Gandy, Hoover’s trusted secretary, with flair. Armie Hammer (The Social Network) is the pleasant antithesis to the abrasive FBI director, as his second in command Clyde Tolson.

A master of counterintelligence, Hoover’s career was one of notoriety and controversy from the mass deportations of radicals in the 20s to his attempted blackmail of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1964. Feared by presidents and criminals alike, the FBI head was a paranoid and vindictive individual more reviled than respected, holding secret files and grudges on many politicians and public figures, which were often gathered illegally to maintain his own position of power.

In the film, Hoover is seen fictionalising history through written memoirs, taking credit for the capture and death of many celebrity criminals such as Dillinger, Pretty Boyd Floyd and the Lindbergh kidnapper. This may also explain the ambiguous non-telling of his true relationship with right hand man and lifelong friend Tolson.

At 137 minutes long the movie could comfortably have lost 20 minutes on the cutting room floor. Though beautifully shot the film lacked the pace needed to carry us through, and positively plodded through what was undoubtedly a colourful chapter of US history, failing to capture the cult and influence of one of the most powerful men of the 20th century.

J.Edgar (cert 15)
On now, FACT
Wood Street, Liverpool


Vinny Lawrenson Woods