J. Edgar Hoover is an unpleasant guy, and spending two-plus hours with him is not a fun experience. Clint Eastwood’s biopic J. Edgar never finds a way to make the humorless, paranoid, fussy, rules-obsessed mama’s boy anything other than a downer, so that the main character ends up draining the life from his own movie. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover with a distracting staccato accent, his face often covered in layers of unconvincing old-age makeup, and it’s more of an impression than a real performance. While DiCaprio made Howard Hughes come alive in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, his take on Hoover, who spent nearly 40 years at the head of the FBI, lacks the same spark. As the movie presents him, Hoover isn’t a tragic figure or a flawed genius; he’s just a dour jerk.
Eastwood’s film radiates self-seriousness, from its lugubrious pacing to its washed-out color palette to its familiar biopic structure of an important man looking back on his life. In this case, it’s the aged Hoover dictating his memoirs to a series of interchangeable young agents (a confusing device that never pays off), detailing his rise through the Department of Justice to head up the newly created FBI, his crusades against gangsters, Communists and radicals and his manipulations of politicians through his extensive collection of secret files on every powerful person in Washington, D.C. But as significant (and devious) as Hoover’s contributions to American history may have been, the movie glosses over many of them in favor of focusing on Hoover’s personal relationships, first with his lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and later with his second-in-command at the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Rather than humanizing Hoover, though, his romantic flailings merely make him more unappealing (as does his unhealthy relationship with his mother, played by Judi Dench). Eastwood doesn’t commit to a full-on exposé of Hoover’s alleged sexual predilections, so the later emotional scenes between Hoover and Tolson feel unearned. Just because Hoover held a lot of power for a long time doesn’t make him an interesting person, and all of J. Edgar’s Hollywood grandeur can’t make him into one.