Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar is a lumbering miscalculation, a slow and clumsy rethink of the late FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover's life and career that views him through the lens of his alleged homosexuality.
Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk, didn't script a "gay fantasia" on Hoover's successes and monomaniacal excesses, but he has written a film that provokes more inappropriate laughter than any mainstream period piece since Oliver Stone's Alexander.
It's fascinating to interpret Hoover's career through his twin obsessions: his experiences battling Bolshevik bomb-throwers in the "Red Scare" of 1919-20 that made him fear communists more than mobsters, and the conflicted "my big secret" of his personal life, which made him a fussy, hypocritical moralist.
But if you're not snickering at the sight of Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and longtime "close associate" Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer of The Social Network) in bathrobes, reading Hoover's "secret files" on the sex lives of the powerful and giggling like a couple of gossipy queens, you're going to be in the minority.
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Eastwood's film skips between the present, in which Hoover is dictating his memoirs to a succession of "loyal" FBI agent-typists, and the past, in which the young card catalog organizer of the Library of Congress brings his data-collecting skills to the bureau that was built around him. We see the night of anarchist bombings that almost killed his boss, Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson); the sloppy, ineffective way that case was handled, and Hoover's determination to bring forensic science and a clearinghouse of fingerprints and other data to his new bureau so crimes like this didn't go unpunished.
We get a taste of his trademark zeal and his early willingness to trample the Constitution, with mass arrests and beatings of labor organizers and mass deportations of "foreign-born radicals" during that incendiary era. From those early excesses, we see the corrupting influence of power. Hoover's discovery of the utility of blackmail and intimidation when it came to political foes becomes a running thread as he visits president after president, and later Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), and lets slip what he "has on them" as a way to keep his organization funded and himself in power.
DiCaprio is, of course, all wrong for the part — entirely too tall, for starters. The makeup that ages him into a jowly older man gives him an eerie resemblance to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. We wonder, since he is nicknamed "Speed" because he talks too darned fast, why DiCaprio isn't talking that fast at all. Then, in news-conference re-creations, Hoover's rapid staccato kicks in and we forget he's Leo. It's an impressive, if far from definitive, impersonation.
The "romance" of the tale, the way Hoover met, hired and in effect "courted" Tolson to be his personal aide and adjutant, is awkward and chaste. Hoover's "loyalty, above all" credo suggests what he truly valued in Tolson, and not just his dreamy eyes and seductive smile.
History buffs will enjoy seeing Hoover's era through the lens Black has written for the film — shamed by a congressman for not making arrests himself (in essence, not being a "real man"), glory-hound Hoover injects himself into manhunts and personally lobbies for changes in the laws to allow the FBI to take over the investigation of the "Crime of the Century," the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.
Judi Dench ably conveys the stern mother who suspects her son is a "daffodil" but hectors him into smoking, overeating and manning up. Josh Lucas cuts a fine figure as Charles Lindbergh. But the casting of bit players is weak because Eastwood goes for look-alike Richard Nixons, Emma Goldmans and the like, and not charismatic actors.
There's balance to the story telling, showing Hoover's innovations and triumphs as well as his pettiness and hypocrisy. Black even makes the man something of a prophet on Nixon and the suppression of America's violent radicals at both ends of the political spectrum.
But J. Edgar drags, even when it pays homage to the widely discredited urban legend that the guy liked to dress in drag. The little man makes for a big subject, and an important one. Somehow, scene by scene and character by character, Hoover always seems just beyond Eastwood's grasp.