Film review: J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood's biopic of the first head of the FBI belongs to its leading man, argues Will Brooker

January 19, 2012

J. Edgar

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts

Released in the UK on 20 January

Cinema is a time machine. It preserves the movements, the voices, the faces and the youth of stars who have long since faded, grown dim and gone out; film itself, fast becoming an old medium in a time of digital video and multiple screens, carries a sense of history, a tinge of melancholy, a pleasurable ache of nostalgia. It is still the perfect medium for this kind of traditional biopic, the story of a life that spanned the 20th century.

Inevitably, a movie that takes us from the 1920s and 1930s, through the Lindberg kidnapping trial to the Kennedy assassination, replays moments we know from TV and cinema, rather than our own memories; so we recognise the Al Capone era of Boardwalk Empire, and the 1960s of Mad Men, while Leonardo DiCaprio's central role recalls other heavyweight, powerhouse performances, from Orson Welles as Citizen Kane to Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. The older Hoover's sulky physical presence brings Hitchcock to mind, and there are moments here that nod to both Psycho and Rope. J. Edgar plays up its own intersections with filmed history, neatly showing the swing of support towards the FBI through clips of James Cagney's roles for Warner Bros, as a gangster in The Public Enemy and then as a cop, four years later, in G Men.

This is DiCaprio's film, and through his central portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover we see the actor in both an alternative past and a possible future. The chronology begins in 1919, when Hoover was 24 years old - two years older than DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996). Despite the flat cap and dim light, the young Hoover looks very little like the young DiCaprio. At some point in the past 15 years, the actor lost that open, vulnerable boyishness and became the scowling, squinting, hard-faced man of Inception, and it seems that no amount of CGI, cinematography and special effects can recapture that fresh, unguarded face of 1996.

What it does show us is how the actor may look in future, although we cannot expect the DiCaprio of 2050, four decades from now, to resemble the 70-year-old Hoover of J. Edgar. DiCaprio is inhabiting another man's lifespan, and his commitment to the performance - the deepening of the croaky voice, the shakes and shuffles - sells it, even in scenes when the make-up and prosthetics look obstinately, comically, like costume pieces and fancy dress.

Designers in old Hollywood used to plot a "fashion story" through movies like Mildred Pierce; far easier to do with women's wardrobes, of course, than with men's. All the more credit, then, to costume designer Deborah Hopper, who draws subtle variations from business suits and deftly articulates a sartorial vocabulary of saloon-bar stripes, tailored jackets, natty tiepins and matching pocket handkerchiefs to suggest distinctions in class, generation and even sexuality.

For this, despite its focus on the FBI, is not a crime film, a detective film or a thriller in the usual sense: not unless you are thrilled by note cards (or cahhds, in DiCaprio's bizarre accent), fahling cabinets, details of the federal lah and close examinations of wood sahs. It is not even a biopic in the usual sense, in that we witness very little of Hoover's career between 1936 and the late 1960s. It seems at first to promise a traditional romance subplot, as Hoover takes typist Helen Gandy on a date to the Library of Congress, but their relationship quickly becomes strictly professional, occupying a strange space between warmth and formality.

What it becomes, by the end, is a more subtle and unexpected love story. From the moment Clyde Tolson walks into Hoover's favourite restaurant, the two are inseparable friends and partners. As their relationship endures and evolves across five decades, the obvious spark between them, coupled with Hoover's deep fear of being (in his mother's word) a "daffodil", lends their scenes an underlying tension that sometimes bubbles over into comedy but ultimately feels more like tragedy. While on the surface this is, as the title and DiCaprio's top billing suggest, a film focusing on a single man, its protagonist is a man who didn't have to be single; this is the story of a man trapped in time, who never quite faced up to himself, and never quite found love.

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