Spying on J. Edgar

Eastwood and DiCaprio see the humanity in their subject.

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As you would expect, J. Edgar hits the familiar points of its subject’s historical record — the legendary FBI director’s homosexuality, cross-dressing and penchant for blackmailing presidents being the most salient among them.

And as you might also expect, director Clint Eastwood handles these elements with his impeccable, fluid style. Eastwood, though not without his predilections, has never been an auteur. He is, instead, a craftsman, one whose sense of understatement and languid pacing, both of which worked so well in a cozy film like Gran Torino, end up muting the impact of this movie. At its center is a larger-than-life figure, one of the most pivotal and well-known of the 20th century, but J. Edgar feels small.

The film skips between Hoover’s past and present, illustrating accounts that the elderly F.B.I director, still in his perch during the Nixon presidency, dictates to a series of agents from behind a typewriter in his office. We see a young Hoover living through the Red Scare of 1919, emerging from that experience with a lifelong determination to root out communism from the U.S. The episodic narrative continues with his introduction of the science of fingerprinting to the Bureau, his efforts to find the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s son, and how his talent for organization and blackmail kept him atop the agency for nearly 50 years.

Though Hoover, for all his flaws, presents himself as an easy target, Eastwood, working from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) isn’t interested in a hit job. Instead, he focuses on the contradictions and humanity within his controversial subject. For Eastwood, Hoover the closet homosexual and momma’s boy is ripe for the kind of melodrama at which the director specializes.

In the title role, Leonardo DiCaprio is proof that it’s possible to be a very good actor in a very wrong role. Talented as he is, DiCaprio never makes us forget it’s him under that makeup, though we can’t help but admire his effort. Armie Hammer (The Social Network), who plays Hoover’s second-in-command, Clyde Tolson, doesn’t come off nearly as well. When he’s not being the beautiful but weightless object of Hoover’s admiration, he’s giving a creaky old-man performance beneath a horribly distracting makeup job, uttering lines that have all the subtlety of a Greek chorus. Though likely in an effort to be discreet and respectful, Eastwood’s approach to Hoover and Tolson’s relationship comes across as campy, soapy and coy.

As for the F.B.I., we get just a few fleeting glimpses into how Hoover used his talent for public relations and Hollywood connections to transform it into an admired institution populated by heroic G-Men. When Eastwood should be showing us, he’s having Hoover tell us while testifying before a Senate committee.

The production values of J. Edgar are, for the most part, very good, and certain individual scenes have impact. Others that were clearly meant to be affecting instead elicited laughter at the screening I attended. But for all the melodrama, we’re not as moved to think or feel as we should be by a character driven to serve his country regardless of the cost to others. When Eastwood shows images of war, death and unrest while Hoover narrates his principles and admonitions, the effect is mild, toothless irony.

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