“J. Edgar” assembles the talents of three people who should all think twice before doing another historical biopic — Leonardo DiCaprio, who awkwardly juggled aging makeup and a ridiculous mustache in “The Aviator”; screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who turned the fascinating political life of Harvey Milk into a clunky series of and-then-this-happeneds in “Milk”; and director Clint Eastwood, the man behind the Charlie Parker movie “Bird,” which bent time and space to make 161 minutes feel like several weeks.
At least this time, there’s no mustache.
Love him or hate him, J. Edgar Hoover makes for an interesting character. He helped create the FBI, brought down gangsters, and wielded unimaginable power for decades by knowing the dirty secrets of everyone who occupied the White House during his long tenure.
He carried his loathing of anarchists and Communists into the Civil Rights era, where he attempted to bring down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with evidence of the activist’s sexual peccadilloes. Ironically, at the same time he had an intense and lengthy relationship — possibly never consummated — with Clyde Tolson, his close associate at the bureau.
But while “J. Edgar” acknowledges the contradictions and the passions and the weaknesses of Hoover, the movie never makes him feel like a real person. As with Black’s two previous screen biographies (“Milk” and the TV-movie “Pedro,” about AIDS activist Pedro Zamora), the screenplay tries to build a character by merely reciting historical incidents, so we’re left with something closer to a monument than to an intimate portrait.
We get the what, but never the why.
The script also uses the hoariest of framing devices, with an elderly Hoover narrating his life story to a series of young FBI agents. (There’s a twist to all this, but it arrives too late to make an impact.) Cue scene after scene of shaky-voiced DiCaprio talking over scene after scene of young Hoover working at the Justice Department, making enemies, becoming head of the newly formed FBI, meeting Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and making her his lifelong personal secretary, etc.
Eastwood and his team of art directors have an unfailing eye for period detail — fetishists for vintage office supplies and stationery will be in hog heaven — but too often the narration feels like a crutch when it’s not outright redundant.
Hoover — like DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes — is mommy-obsessed, turning to his mother (Judi Dench) for her advice and denying himself the affection of other men when she makes it clear that such a thing would be unthinkable for her. That’s bad news for Tolson (Armie Hammer, gleaming like a Pepsodent model), who has lunch and dinner with Hoover every day but never gets any more physical acknowledgment than the occasional holding of hands and, in Black’s telling, one kiss after the two have a physical altercation.
People buying a ticket to “J. Edgar” to see the head of the FBI presented as a cross-dresser enjoying a passionate affair with his second in command are in for a disappointment, but the film’s portrayal of the Hoover-Tolson relationship actually rings true. Even if the two of them were gay, the times and their own personal programming would never allow them to do anything but repress their urges and make whatever life they could within the confines of 1930s Washington, D.C.
It certainly helps this part of the story that Hammer gives the film’s most relatable performance. With DiCaprio buried under equally thick layers of old-age putty and clunky narration, Hammer makes Tolson into a real person, swept up in Hoover’s charisma and power and content to live his life in the other man’s shadow.
So much of “J. Edgar” drags by at an interminable pace that I found myself thinking about moments from Harry Shearer’s hilarious radio musical “J. Edgar!” which featured Kelsey Grammer as Hoover and John Goodman as Tolson.
While that satirical piece obviously exaggerates the facts here and there, it’s the Hoover who attacks his enemies in song who feels more memorable and more complex than the one DiCaprio gives us.