‘J. Edgar’ fails to tell his story

Darin Miller Movie Critic
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By all accounts, J. Edgar Hoover was a workaholic. Where biographies and Clint Eastwood’s just-released biopic on Hoover differ is how they deal with this. Biographers tend to focus on what is known — Hoover’s life’s work — allowing a few pages for hearsay and gossip about his sexuality. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s “J. Edgar” focuses on the little known and assumed about Hoover’s sexuality, using it as the key to understanding Hoover’s actions.

“J. Edgar” covers FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) impressive 40-plus-year career. Beginning with his meteoric rise in his early twenties to direct the Bureau, the film chronicles Hoover’s work under eight presidents fighting communism and crime. But it explores the secrets he held as well — not just about himself, but those he lorded over others as blackmail to influence politicians and cultural leaders. “J. Edgar” is the story of a man fighting for justice, and how the temptation of power can corrupt.

Or that’s what it was supposed to be about. Black’s screenplay glosses over the known to dwell on the assumed. He covers the facts quickly — an elderly Hoover dictates the story of the FBI to a series of young writers, with the help of flashbacks to his younger years and montage sequences of his efforts to curb crime and punish dissidents. Black ignores the old maxim “show, don’t tell,” until he gets to Hoover’s personal life. There, he vividly portrays Hoover’s emotional weakness, as well as his strange relationship with Clyde Tolson. Black’s previous films include “Milk” and “Pedro,” the stories of gay icons, and his Hoover seems destined to become the one that got away — a man who could have been legendary in the gay community if he’d only embraced his homosexuality. Black paints a sympathetic picture of Hoover as a man whose quest for power is simply the logical channeling of repressed homosexuality into work. It’s a theory, but it’s one of many, as Hoover biographers differ on whether he was gay.

Eastwood’s directorial work has become almost as legendary as his acting. But “J. Edgar,” which can so easily be compared to “The Aviator” because of DiCaprio, feels small. Eastwood’s portrait of Hoover, a man whose influence struck fear into presidents, makes him seem pitiable — a weakling diminished through shadowed shots that depress the film and scenes heavy with dialogue that occur behind the scenes, inside the halls of the Bureau.

Where Eastwood and Black visualize Hoover’s crime-fighting efforts, they strike gold. The scenes where Hoover and the FBI investigate the legendary Lindbergh kidnapping are fascinating, as we see the Bureau at work in the early days of forensic analysis. The logical step-by-step process Hoover and his team take to track and capture the baby’s killer is brilliant, and Eastwood and Black capture it.

As the lead, DiCaprio is strong as usual, but where his aviator Howard Hughes was real, with debilitating phobias and soaring obsessions, his Hoover is a shell. Everything is a little off. The accent is clipped and precise, but unnatural. Perhaps that was his intent. In any case, it’s distracting. The make-up artists brilliantly age Hoover, Tolson (Armie Hammer) and Hoover’s secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), but only Watts is able to really pull off both the young and old characters. In DiCaprio’s case, and especially in Hammer’s, the movements are fake. I’m sure it’s difficult to play an elderly person, but despite the talent of all three, only Watts nails it. Hoover’s mother (played by the ever-brilliant Judy Dench) is one of the strongest and best-acted characters in the film.

Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” is good. But it could have been great. If it had focused on the well-documented decades of the FBI director’s life, we could have had a Hoover picture that stirs up discussions about excessive power and government overreach. Instead, the only debate this movie will inspire is a decades-old one about a puzzle even the FBI couldn’t solve.

Darin Miller is a movie critic in Washington, D.C.