Two years after Invictus, Clint Eastwood turns the camera on a more controversial political figure in his latest directorial effort, J Edgar. Playing the role of the infamous former director of the FBI is Leonardo DiCaprio, as heavily drenched in prosthetics as he is with awards buzz. True to the now-steadfast grammar of Oscar-hungry political biopics, Eastwood explores the bizarre life of J. Edgar Hoover with flashbacks, with the narrative jumping from his decline under the Kenedy administration, through to the molding of his political and personal life, the embryonic stages of the Bureau of Investigations, and the development of the cutting edge forensic techniques that he pioneered. As a character piece, Hoover is the perfect subject; his meteoric rise to power, repressed homosexuality and transvestitism, chronic paranoia and sad decline providing Eastwood and scriptwriter Dustin Lance Black with enough material for a trilogy of pictures.
DiCaprio leads an impressive cast with aplomb, finding the same convincing balance between impersonation and embodiment that he found playing Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. He plays Hoover through the ages successfully, subtly shifting his vocal timbre and body language accordingly, and taking the focus off the heavy prosthetic makeup that is at times a distraction with other members of the cast. Along side Di Caprio are Judie Dench, Naomi Watts and former Winklevoss, Arnie Hammer. Dench provides the gravitas that her pay check demands as the overbearing, acerbically homophobic mother, albeit with a less than convincing American accent, and Watts is solid in a supporting role that is unfortunately never much more than peripheral. The real praise is reserved for Hammer's Clyde Tolson, Hoover's protégé-come-lover. Despite the impressive performances, the film struggles to engage at times, but is easily at its best when exploring the complex and heartbreaking relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Perhaps unsurprisingly when considering the mystery that surrounded Hoover's life, those in the audience without a basic understanding of the political landscape in North America from the depression to the missile crisis may find themselves a little lost at times, with at least some prior knowledge required to fill in the blanks.
J. Edgar covers a lot of ground, and when the curtain falls, there is certainly a sense that the film could have benefitted from some liberal snipping. Uncharacteristically for Eastwood, there is little to grab on to throughout the opening hour, with the character development feeling a little labored at times. Despite a stylish aesthetic, the film is also guilty of feeling sluggish, and at times televisual; unlike most of the veteran director's work, there is a sense that J. Edgar would look more at home in the form of an HBO mini-series, and taking into account the excessive runtime and wealth of potentially interesting material, perhaps that's where it should have ended up.
There is much to like about J. Edgar, but the strong performances, solid script and a genuinely engaging love story are somewhat suffocated but its turgid direction, lethargic pacing and formulaic narrative.