‘J. Edgar’: Flat biopic

November 7, 2011

Let’s see: Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” which opens in limited release Wednesday (11/9/11) before going wider on Friday, features a fully committed performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a sly one by Armie Hammer as Hoover assistant Clyde Tolson, a poisonous mother portrayal by Judi Dench – and…what?

As the credits rolled at the end of the screening I saw, my reaction was more, “Huh?” than anything else. Mostly, I wondered: Who will want to see this movie?

There are a solid two generations of people to whom J. Edgar Hoover is simply a name in a history book – if they’re aware of him at all. Eastwood’s film, from a script by “Milk” scribe Dustin Lance Black, wants to place Hoover in a historical context – as a pioneer in modern scientific crime-fighting and creator of the modern FBI. But it also wants to show his feet of clay, portraying him at times as a vain, even vainglorious bureaucrat who responded to criticism by putting the critics on his personal enemies list.

But Black’s script, bouncing back and forth in time between the early and mid-1960s and the 1920s and 1930s, can’t quite figure out what story it’s telling. Does it want to address Hoover’s accomplishments – such as bringing criminal investigation into the 20th century with the use of fingerprints and scientific laboratory analysis? Or does it want to expose Hoover as a headline-hunting glory hog who pimped out the image of the crime-busting G-Man to radio serials, movies and even cereal-box promotions?

Black tries to touch on all of this and more, but the things he chooses to focus on seem, well, not random, but wrong-headed in their priorities. An exceptional amount of time is spent on the hunt for Charles Lindbergh’s kidnapped son and the trial of the kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann – to no particular end, other than to note that Hoover helped pass laws making kidnapping a federal offense.

In the film’s present – the 1960s – there is a lot of time spent with Hoover bullying Robert F. Kennedy and plotting the downfall of Martin Luther King Jr., whom he considered a dangerous radical. He practically smacks his lips while listening to tapes of a King tryst in a hotel with a woman who was not King’s wife. And Hoover is shattered when his attempts to blackmail King prove fruitless.

Yet Eastwood can’t quite bring himself to brand Hoover a dangerous bully, who used his position to trample the civil rights of those he considered a threat to the country. Nor, for that matter, does he delve too deeply into Hoover’s sexuality, which is depicted here as a highly conflicted and closeted homosexuality. There’s an unspoken tension – but also an understanding – between Hoover and Tolson, one passionate kiss and a veiled conversation with his disapproving mother, who tells him a cautionary tale about an effeminate neighbor known in the neighborhood as “Daffodil.”

In many ways, Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” is reminiscent of Danny DeVito’s 1992 film, “Hoffa,” another sprawling drama that tried to encompass an eventful life in one movie. “J. Edgar” makes cases for and against Hoover, without really making us care either way.

Not that DiCaprio doesn’t give his all. His eyes are a little too feline to fully capture Hoover’s wide-eyed, bulldoggish appearance – but he otherwise embodies the pugnacious self-assurance and rat-a-tat rhythms of his speech. Even when he’s forced to act beneath rubber prosthetic makeup made to age him to Hoover’s 70-plus years, DiCaprio finds the swagger – but also the vulnerability – of someone who has spent his life fighting for the forces of right, while trying to keep his wrong impulses in check.

Hammer, so good as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network,” gives Tolson a bubbly humor and knowing air that indicates the character’s self-awareness, something Hoover never seems to have. Dench, as Hoover’s controlling mother, looks like the cat that ate the canary – except the canary is her own son.

How historically accurate is “J. Edgar”? If it were a better movie, one bound to reach and influence a younger generation and give them their first glimpse of the man, that might be a more important question. But “J. Edgar” is only an interesting failure, a movie that tries to do too much and ends up not doing nearly enough.

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