The filmmakers describe their movie, "J. Edgar" as the story about a complex and compelling figure who was a catalyst for modern forensics. The founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had an overwhelming desire for eternal secrecy, they say, and because of this, the question of who he really was remains largely speculative to this day.
However, watching the Clint Eastwood directed biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, with a script by Dustin Lance Black (who penned "Milk," the story of gay activist Harvey Milk), there's no speculating. At the end of this "based on a true story" portrayal, Eastwood and Company make their preference clear: that Hoover was a power-hungry narcissist whose fear of his own homosexuality led to many of his radical, and sometimes bitterly cruel, decisions. However, as much as they want you to believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was the real J. Edgar, the movie never really offers any reason to care one way or another.
Sure, the story of the life behind the person who built a centralized collection of fingerprints in Washington could make for good drama, but there are a number of reasons why "J. Edgar" is a drag. The film is framed around Hoover, now near the end of his 48-year-career (from 1924 to until his death in 1972) dictating his story to a number of typists from the bureau. Each of them not only takes down Hoover's ramblings, but also injects questions, which then serve to propel the story.
Scattered in between the smatters of history -- beginning with post-World War I's paranoiac political climate during the Bolshevik invasion, which act as the groundwork to Hoover's later rants against communism, the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby, and the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few -- there is Hoover's personal life.
The film becomes overly dependent on using his relationships to explain his fanatical ways. Was he doggedly determined because of his obsessive mother, played by Judi Dench? Did he really hide his homosexuality because the dragon lady said, "I'd rather a dead son, than a daffodil" when talking about a neighbor boy that used to wear girl's clothing? The relationship portrayed between Hoover and his assistant director, Clyde Tolson (Armie "The Social Network" Hammer), becomes the center of the film, but comes off as forced and not entirely believable. Meanwhile, brace yourself for the makeup used to age Tolson, which makes him look frighteningly non-human.
A fight scene between the two men in their younger years while vacationing together is the most dramatic in the movie. Yes, there's no doubting that it was choreographed by "Dirty Harry" himself.
Eastwood had the same problem of emotional disconnect in his direction of the Angelina Jolie star vehicle, 2008's "Changeling," where a mother searches desperately for her missing son, yet the character was developed in such a shallow way that there was never any reason to invest in her plight.
The same goes for the characterization of Hoover by Leonardo DiCaprio. Through each scene, whether we see Hoover as the young upstart or the bloated, graying bureau chief, DiCaprio speaks strong words but lacks the power needed to give it much gusto. His portrayal of another real-life mystery man, Howard Hughes, was much more in order since that called for the detachment DiCaprio always seems to bring to a role.
There's something lacking in "J. Edgar." Perhaps the mystery surrounding the man remained too elusive to give this film any foundation.