Before writing this review I read the general responses to J Edgar in the internet movie database, and quite a few observed that while they generally liked Clint Eastwood's films,this one was not one of the best. Since I disagreed totally, I paused to reflect on all those personal factors and expectations that might generate a negative personal response to even an essentially worthy film like this one.
If you are expecting an action crime movie, similar to Public Enemies,because of Hoover's reputation as a gang buster than you are going to be disappointed. What you get instead from this movie is a generally accurate historical recreation of major events in Hoover's life and times. Hoover's career as public servant spanned nine US presidencies from Wilson to Nixon,and despite FBI propaganda generated by Hoover himself,he was merely posing for those shots when you see him wielding a machine gun in those old FBI films. Rarely if ever did he make an arrest in reality, as often as not never leaving his office. The Dillinger days of The FBI,despite being the central feature of a film like Public Enemies, get relatively little screen time in this version of events.
In some respects, Hoover was really just a brilliant bureaucrat and uber librarian, accumulating information gained legally and otherwise to construct both an enormous private filing system and FBI database, and Eastwood's film well captures this obsessive and sinister side of Hoover's personality. In an amusing but telling scene in the film, Di Caprio's Hoover attempts to woo his new secretary Helen Gandy with how quick and efficient his enormous card indexing system is.
The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black uses the device of Hoover telling his own story, flashing back and forth from career highlights to his old age, and achieves a remarkable feat of compressing over fifty years of American History into just over two hours. Beginning with the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids of 1919 and ending with Hoover's death in 1972 a few months before Watergate, the film does not spend any great time on deep analysis of events, but devotes just enough time for the audience to grasp the pros and cons of Hoover 's actions. As a survey of real historical events the film stays close to the facts and along with Hoover's own justification for his actions, we get disturbing glimpses of the dark side of his character,from the perspectives of other characters. Leonardo Di Caprio in a fine performance brings out the contradictory elements of Hoover's behaviour convincingly.
The most inventive and fictional elements of the film involve Hoover's personal life outside his work,because as one character observes during the course of the film,he often seems not to have one. Scenes with his dominant mother played by Judi Dench, and with his lifelong FBI companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) are dramatised speculation of what might or might not have happened between Hoover and the pair of them. In particular, the film bravely dramatises unproven allegations of a homosexual relationship with Tolson,in one scene by showing an angry Hoover rejecting his advances. In other scenes it appears that his affection for Helen Gandy was equally as important. It is Gandy not Tolson whom he asks to dispose of his secret files and personal papers in the event of his death, and as the film shows, this is what happened in reality. The film accurately portrays some of the complexity of Hoover's relationships with other people without resorting to caricature or exaggeration.
If the film has a fault,it is its murky cinematography ,which on the DVD, I viewed seemed to suggest wrongly that everything happened in the dark. Fans of Eastwood's westerns,his low brow comedies, his action crime films, and his war films,may not like this film, as he directs it in the more thoughtful and reflective mode of later films such as The Changeling,rather than in the style of his more popular Gran Torino. They may wish to write this off as a boring history lesson, but only bores find history boring,particularly when the history in question deals with how the events in which Hoover played a central role,were significant in shaping the values of modern day America.
Clint Eastwood,directing films now into extreme old age and still at the top of his game, seems able to direct almost any film he pleases at this late stage of his career and is still capable of producing interesting and adult films in any genre.