Dir: Clint Eastwood
The product of years of research and gobs of stage makeup, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar gives the notorious FBI director the condensed biography he would have never wanted, but probably deserves. It’s a fitting summation for a man who, starting with his original career as a librarian, built his life’s work on pigeonholing and defining others, from preemptively deporting suspected radicals to spearheading the nation’s first fingerprint database. The film posits this obsession with order as a counterweight to the unruly mess of Edgar’s own mind, a roiling sea of issues, ambitions and unacceptable desires.
Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay imagines Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hoover as a man torn between dueling impulses, his buried homosexuality only one element of a lifelong struggle to suppress his feelings. When those feelings do get out, they tend to make him look insane; early on, he proposes to love interest Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) on a third date, after showing her the work he did setting up the card catalog at the Library of Congress. Her rejection teaches him an important lesson. She becomes his lifelong secretary, and he never lets his emotions run free again.
Movies like this, which profile stunted characters forced into false lives by the mores of their times, have become more common over the last decade; Eastwood has made a few others himself. Like a lot of them, and like many examples of the similarly booming biopic genre, J. Edgar is self-congratulatory and unchallenging, an often ponderous piece of fluff doubling as charitable awareness-building. It has the feel of something assembled from a kit, and one with a lot of faulty pieces at that. The dialogue, especially in the early going, is clunky and expository, and many of the film’s one-shot characters, particularly Jeffrey Donovan’s dreadful Bobby Kennedy impersonation, feel like embarrassing cameos.
Still, J. Edgar manages to shape a compelling central relationship amid all this clutter. The strained rapport between DiCaprio and Armie Hammer, as Hoover’s deputy and long-time companion Clyde Tolson, does a good job of portraying a relationship perpetually frozen in its preliminary stages, even with the two trapped beneath layers of terrifying old-man makeup. But even in this situation, Hoover’s character feels less mysteriously compelling than baffling. He’s saddled with an overbearing mother, a stammer and an awkward temperament, but even this battery of issues fails to explain the man behind all these events.
Positioned around this void of a person, the really sympathetic characters end up being Tolson and Gandy, who both sacrificed their entire lives in thrall to this very strange man. Neither get fully satisfying portrayals, with Gandy’s character in particular doing little more than make phone calls and cast worrying looks toward the camera. J. Edgar is a big movie, and at times a pretty good one, but it never feels quite up to the odd, towering man it clumsily attempts to explain.