In the entertaining and orderly historical drama J. Edgar, director Clint Eastwood and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black (Milk), create a low-keyed caricature of the man who invented the FBI, crafting him with almost equal parts genius and tyranny.
It's not very nuanced, and its psychological insights are rather mundane, but for more than two hours, it held my attention with polished storytelling, elegant visuals and a recreation of some compelling 20th-century American history, especially the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the trial (of the century, of course) that followed.
Hoover's genius, which the film admires, came in inventing modern crime-solving: fingerprints, forensics, surveillance. Nobody did much of that before the early 1920s, when the young Hoover began his ascent and subsequent half-century as head of the FBI. The tyranny came from his desire to be seen as heroic and flawless, and he got what he wanted by keeping blackmail files on powerful people who dared try to rein him in. (Guess which first lady had a -- female lover!)
The result is a rather enervated film, devoid of passion, that walks us through its story with clarity and efficiency. It moves back and forth in time as the elderly Hoover, still on the job, dictates a largely fallacious version of his life. You also may not be able to get past Leonardo DiCaprio's mannered performance -- which see-saws from compelling to contrived -- and his imitation of Hoover's vocal cadence: In old-age makeup, he sometimes looks like Benjamin Button. But as always, Leo's expressive eyes and cherubic face charm us into believing.
There was only one open question in Hoover's life: Were he and his long-time No. 2 man at the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), also long-time companions? With kudos to Eastwood and Black, their answer in J. Edgar is a resounding and humanizing yes, with a caveat.
The men of this drama are clearly homosexuals in love with each other, Hoover the more furtive of the couple, the damaged product of an unerring devotion to his asphyxiating mother (Judi Dench), who quietly terrifies him into a very dark closet. But Eastwood leaves the most intimate question unanswered. In a fictional scene that may become a camp classic, Clyde throws a majestic hissy fit when Edgar talks about dating Dorothy Lamour, and their fisticuffs end in an embrace and a bloody kiss on the floor. The rest will have to come from your imagination, which I suppose is Eastwood's idea of a subtext.
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer