|Yes, this looks pretty ridiculous... but hey, all that we're saying is give Edgar a chance...|
"When morals decline..."
Like many good bio-pics (if not great ones), J Edgar makes me curious about the subject at its core, which may not just be its protagonist but also the idea(s) that it's looking at through its character. I'm not sure how accurate this portrayal of the first and most notorious director of the Bureau of Investigations - later "Federal" - but it does portray obsession and control in some compelling ways. This man as seeing in Clint Eastwood's film was made much by his the times he was in and by his domineering Mother, who was the only one he really listened to (sometimes even his own conscience could be so mixed-up as to what was "right" or "wrong"). For those going in expecting an 'accurate' depiction, I'm not sure what to tell you, except that Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black are accurate to what they see as their vision of the man and his times, and that makes for some good dramatic viewing.
As happens in some bio-pics - not least of which some directed by Eastwood (Bird, Flags of Our Fathers) - the story goes back and forth in time between the 'young' Hoover and the 'old' Hoover. At first I wasn't keen on this framing device, mostly as it seemed to be a generic attempt to frame it with J. Edgar dictating the "Untitled FBI Story" to a series of stenographer-agents. But this actually grew on me as the film progressed, not just because Black and Eastwood seemed to get a firmer grasp on how to go back and forth in time better (after the initial ten minute or so intro, which felt clumsiest), but because the information we were being given is later revealed to not be entirely reliable by its narrator. The structure becomes part of the point, of how one looks at history of a man and an institution, which as Hoover tries to assert is one and the same (or at least in this case).
It's also a history lesson as a film, though occasionally here too the filmmakers stumble, but only slightly. This is more of a case of personal preference than through a specific 'fault' of the film; I would have liked to have seen more about the period where the FBI became all about bank robbers (perhaps Eastwood/Black figured Public Enemies covered that much more, albeit it didn't cover it well), and that the Charles Lindburgh baby case was much more fertile ground for mystery and suspense-drama. They may have been correct, though they kind of coat over the bank-robbery stuff a little too quickly perhaps, though there's a little time given to how inadequate Hoover felt in the face of Dillinger being caught/killer by Melvin Purvis, and not himself.
History is given some good time in the film, and several historical figures are given decent if less than stellar appearances (i.e. Lindburgh, RFK, Nixon is probably the more laughable, and even Shirley Temple pops up for a meet-cute/meet-awkward). But it's really a character-piece most of all, and how this man saw this institution he sort of founded (I say 'sort-of' as he probably saw he was the numero-uno, but it was really much more complex than that), and the people in his life - his capable secretary (Naomi Watts), his doting/harsh/calculating/etc-fill-in-the-blank-here mother (Judi Dench), and of course Clyde Tolsom (Armie Hammer). It's really in the last relationship between Edgar and Clyde the film feels more comfortable, and perhaps Black too at making a kind of anti-Milk story here. Unlike in his 'Milk' script where a man was not only comfortable about his homosexuality but made it a point to which he made himself a leader for others, Hoover was completely closed-up about it, and it was probably obvious to everyone except himself that something wasn't quite right and was shady between him and Clyde.
It's there that I got some satisfaction out of the performances as DiCaprio and Hammer have solid on-screen chemistry, and it becomes fascinating wholly to see their relationship in the jumps between time. I figured going in DiCaprio would be at least watchable in the film, and I was glad to see his make-up was actually believable... not so much with Hammer's old-man make-up, which makes him look like the grandfather from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies (maybe a skewed budget for its main star and less for supporting players? who knows). But whenever those two were on screen, and DiCaprio and Dench (her scene about "Daffodils" is extraordinary in its creepiness), make the film come alive. Ironically, it's only when Eastwood and Black go for the given controversy around Hoover - that he was a cross-dresser - that the film seems silly and out of place, as if addressing it in a really fucked-up manner that comes out wrong, more-so out of 'Psycho' than any actual reality.
As a portrait of a man and his deliberately skewed times (for his own gain), I found J. Edgar hard to tear away from. It's far from Eastwood's best, but he is trying here, which is more than can be said for his last couple of pictures (Invictus, Hereafter), and he has a subject that is definitely *not* sympathetic, but he is a human being, and to make him such makes us try to understand him, a little. I didn't feel any changes in how I thought/felt about the man, but through performance and art it made me look at him as... not just a caricature of bureaucratic horror. It's a psychological head-game matched up with history.