Published Nov 10, 2011J. Edgar Hoover was once the most powerful man in America. Wiretapping private conversations, the FBI chief blackmailed U.S. Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy. He pathologically surveilled Martin Luther King, whom he considered a communist, took credit for high-profile busts he had nothing to do with and shamelessly promoted himself on radio, movies and even breakfast cereal boxes.
It's tough to make a 140-minute film about a character so despicable he'd make Dick Cheney blush, but director Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) inject Hoover with a touch of humanity: his lifelong affair with his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson. Armie Hammer (the twins in The Social Network) steals scenes from Leonardo DiCaprio (Hoover) by bringing out a bit of vulnerability. Their dysfunctional love story binds together two eras of Hoover's life: the Depression, when he fought bootleggers, and the '60s, when he persecuted the Kennedys and King. Without that relationship, J. Edgar would be unbearable.
Naomi Watts does well with the two-dimensional Helen Gandy, Hoover's faithful secretary. However, we never learn why she stuck by him for nearly 50 years. Judi Dench excels as Hoover's overbearing mother, who in one show-stopping scene tells him straight on that she'd rather have a dead son than a "daffodil."
Tom Stern's desaturated cinematography drains the film of joy, which perfectly mirrors Hoover's repressed inner life. In fact, nearly the entire film is told through Hoover's narcissistic recollections, which allows us to bounce around time ― credit the make-up department for making the characters so believable as they age.
Fortunately, Eastwood and Black condemn Hoover for the bully he was, yet somehow portray him as a human being. (Warner)