** (out of four)
Clint Eastwood knows a great deal about many subjects: grumbling, the West, gunfire, stubble.
Then there are topics, recent years have proven, about which Mr. Eastwood has fewer insightful thoughts: kidnapping, apartheid, the afterlife, “Jersey Shore.” (Well, the latter is an assumption, pending production of Eastwood’s revenge saga “Fist Pump.”)
Now, with “J. Edgar,” the sometimes-great director (most recently: “Letters From Iwo Jima”) takes on another complicated story and again plays it soft and safe.
More convincing as an old man than he was in “The Aviator,” Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the FBI’s first director, J. Edgar Hoover, known as Edgar to his mother and friends. Much gossip has lingered about Hoover’s alleged homosexuality and cross-dressing since he died in 1972. Before the film’s release, the FBI expressed concern that “J. Edgar” would depict a lifestyle that historical record could not confirm. After seeing the movie, the Feds probably will say, “Not what we were hoping for, but it could have been worse.”
That’s because “J. Edgar,” written by Oscar-winning (and, relevant to mention in this case, openly gay) screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), does imply that there was a more-than-friends relationship between Hoover and his FBI right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Hoover relentlessly pursues the secrets of criminals and elected officials but, perhaps stemming from his mother’s (Judi Dench) intolerance, feels embarrassed about, as he puts it, his disinclination to dance with women. Yet the decades-long bond between Hoover and Tolson includes but one kiss, from which Hoover retreats.
The FBI director effectively avoided concrete documentation about his personal life, but “J. Edgar” suggests the movie doesn’t know anything for sure. That’s fine to recognize the public’s lack of information; however, a biopic should understand the what and why of private moments. "J.Edgar" instead presents conjecture without nuance. It never dares to consider how the men apparently endured a loving relationship that was never physical or demonstrative.
That’s just one way this story unfolds more like chapter titles than chapters, moving on to the next subject before finishing the last one. (A biopic should never feel like browsing.) Bouncing between Hoover’s early days on the job and his elder years—during which he dictates memoirs to a revolving door of young agents—the film’s grueling structure eliminates urgency and focus. What did the bureau accomplish, besides taking down high-profile folks like John Dillinger and the Lindbergh baby murderer? What was the impact of Hoover’s buttoned-up personal life, not to mention his divisive political investigations and allegations of racism and sexism?
The natural ease between DiCaprio and Hammer (could they have found more boyish faces to turn into old ones?) appears special when Hoover and Tolson are alone, but more muted with others around. Yet Eastwood has not delivered an involving portrait of a man willing to confront everyone’s hidden agenda but his own. J. Edgar Hoover may have doggedly pursued his perception of truth and justice, but the largely dry “J. Edgar” lacks the conviction of its subject.
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