The late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover would have hated director Clint Eastwood's new movie about him, but audiences are likely to be intrigued by it. Although "J. Edgar" does not realize its full dramatic potential, it's an ambitious attempt to get inside the mind of a man for whom secrecy was a professional attribute.
During his long career, Eastwood's strength as a director has been his adherence to straightforward, deliberately paced storytelling that encourages actors to develop their characters in an incremental fashion.
Ironically, "J. Edgar" would have been an even better film if it adhered more rigorously to Eastwood's usual working method.
Instead, the time-skipping narrative structure in the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black ("Milk") constantly jumps back and forth between Hoover as an idealistic young man and as an embittered bureaucrat with nearly 50 years as FBI director behind him.
Although the jumping around in time is never really confusing, that busy editing scheme tends to make the overall picture seem choppier than the overall biographical account warrants.
It also does not help that the old-age makeup for Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime assistant, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), tends to be rather obvious. Movie buffs also may be mildly distracted by the elderly Hoover's resemblance to Charles Foster Kane in his final years in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane." Were these two lonely old men separated at birth?
Bear with the needlessly hectic editing, however, because "J. Edgar" is a worthwhile character study that's able to transcend its various flaws. This investigation into one of the most powerful American citizens of the 20th century does not present a flattering portrait of him, but it's basically sympathetic to a man facing both external criminal threats and internal demons.
To cut to the chase in terms of what one expects from such a Hoover biopic, yes, the movie addresses the rumors of this buttoned-up bureaucrat wearing a dress in the privacy of his, er, closet. Actually, it's a bedroom scene in which Hoover trades a suit for a dress. Not even DiCaprio looks pretty under such pathetic circumstances.
Far from going for cheap laughs by ridiculing Hoover, the script devotes a lot of screen time to showing the close friendship between Hoover and Tolson. There is no documentary proof that they had a romantic relationship, but there are enough biographical details to collectively qualify as circumstantial evidence.
In any event, "J. Edgar" presents them as exceptionally discreet lovers. Regardless of how this assumption relates to your own sense of Hoover's life, it's dramatically effective as the emotional thread holding the whole movie together.
If DiCaprio does not always seem completely comfortable inside his character's sometimes-prosthetic skin, it's at least partly because the screenplay's take on the uptight Hoover does not have this G-Man feeling comfortable inside his own skin. On a less fortunate note, it's also because the screenplay has too much stilted dialogue.
Where the movie comes alive is in the interplay between Hoover and Tolson. Armie Hammer gives such a nuanced performance as Tolson that it's delightful to watch the subtle gestures and intonations that both actors bring to their conversations in the office and even more so at the race track or in restaurants.
Also on the domestic front, Judi Dench gives an incisive performance as Hoover's domineering mother, Annie, with whom this lifelong bachelor lived until her death; and Naomi Watts is fine as Helen Gandy, the faithful secretary who zealously guarded her boss's secret files on seemingly everybody.
In speculating about Hoover's personal life, this movie includes several scenes in which the performances, writing and direction movingly mesh. These core scenes make it easier to forgive more pedestrian stretches including borderline-unconvincing scenes with actors poorly impersonating Robert F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
"J. Edgar" also benefits from its curiosity about everything from Hoover's investigation of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case in the 1930s to his sleuthing into Martin Luther King Jr.'s personal life in the 1960s.
One can quibble with both the findings and the methods deployed in this cinematic investigation, but Eastwood's movie merits respect for being like another kind of hoover as it earnestly vacuums up a wealth of, er, dirt. It makes you wonder about more than whether the Bureau kept a file on you. Grade: B+
"J. Edgar" (R) is now playing at area theaters.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun