As the godfather of modern crime-fighting during America’s turbulent mid-20th Century, FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover’s life story was always likely to be on Hollywood’s ‘to do’ list.
Yet Clint Eastwood’s biopic isn’t the sweeping epic you might expect, even with a screenplay from Dustin Lance Black that replicates his Oscar-winning Milk in folding the personal into the political. Instead, Hoover’s remote character makes the film into a fractured mosaic as fascinatingly flawed as its anti-hero.
The dual narrative hops between the FBI’s rise to power and the ’60s, where an ageing Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) dictates a self-serving memoir to wrestle back control from civil rights agitators.
That tricksy structure hints towards big ideas, and the film almost works in scrutinising Hoover’s big contradiction: the obsession with keeping dirt on his enemies while remaining so squeaky-clean he represses his love for right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, superb).
Trouble is, the very thing that makes Hoover so interesting also prevents Eastwood and Black getting a handle on him. Hoover remains immune to explanation; surely, it can’t be as hoary a cliché as the desire to please a demanding mother (Judi Dench)?
The film probes the facts with the same fusspot attention Hoover gave his private files. Eastwood’s direction is thoughtful to the point of pedantry, not least in the prosthetics used to transform DiCaprio.
When actors as diverse as Billy Crudup and Bob Hoskins have played the role, you realise how tough a gig DiCaprio has, synthesising the ambitious zealot and the gruff, paranoid wiretapper.
He does exceptionally well highlighting the troubled soul beneath a perfectionist exterior, yet the subtleties are gradually lost under piercing, black contact lenses and fastidiously liver-spotted “old man” make-up. It’s a cover-up Hoover himself would have been proud of.