There are a great many politicians and government officials who have been maligned over the course of history. J. Edgar Hoover is possibly one of the top 20 (according to my own subjective statistics) most polarizing and detested of those officials. Even so, the question for making a film about the man's life must have been: How can we conceivably create a narrative that will be even remotely appealing to modern audiences? The answer: Focus on the gay.
Starting at the end of Hoover's days, Clint Eastwood's sweeping biopic tries its best to cover as much ground as possible from the get-go, even though the only thing you can really focus on initially is how hideous Leonardo DiCaprio looks. Thankfully, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (an escapee of Sacramento who also wrote the infinitely better screenplay for Harvey Milk's biopic, Milk) didn't feel compelled to delve into Hoover's childhood, choosing to highlight his career beginning from his political upshot in the wake of the Palmer raids.
Obviously, when you want to cinch the deal on an Oscar nomination, it's absolutely essential to have Judi Dench as a member of your cast, and so, the Dame plays Hoover's overbearing, domineering mother, Anna Marie. Black's portrayal of their rapport seems to reveal that his mother knew all too well of Hoover's "tendencies." Although, in many respects, her stifling and controlling ways could be what led to his overzealousness when it came to running the FBI, she was also the only person he could really trust--apart from his purported lover, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). As Associate Director of the FBI, Tolson endured the instability of American life from the outset of Hoover's revamping of the bureau, witnessing everything from the capturing of Bruno Hauptmann in the wake of kidnapping Charles Lindbergh's son to the crackdown on notorious gangsters like Harry Brunette and Alvin Karpis.
The overall premise of J. Edgar, if it had to be boiled down, is that the man notorious for manipulating governmental practices had a dark secret eating him alive, which is undoubtedly the reason why he was so consumed with collecting other people's secrets. No major politico, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedys, and Richard Nixon, was safe from the scrutiny and subterfuge of Hoover. While he may have passed it off as concern for his country, there was something deeper and more psychologically fraught to his motives.
And, call me a crazy champion of unpopular views, but DiCaprio's performance is not quite as flooring as what you would expect. Prone to playing eccentric historical figures (e.g. Howard Hughes in The Aviator), it appears that DiCaprio has become too reliant on the perceived personalities of others rather than putting his own panache into a role. Also, where acting in J. Edgar is concerned, Ed Westwick (who makes an appearance as one of Hoover's biographers) will always be Chuck Bass to me. But, at least Naomi Watts delivers a performance as Helen Gandy that buffets those more than occasional moments of wooden acting in this particular film.