By Caryn James | James on Screens November 8, 2011 at 2:21PM
J. Edgar Hoover had a fascinating life: wire-tapping unsuspecting Americans, using the dirt on politicians’ personal lives to keep his job as head of the FBI for nearly half a century, reorganizing the Agency and bringing it into the modern age of forensics, being way too close to his Mom -- and those are just the facts, never mind the gossipy details about wearing women’s clothes in private and his murky relationship with his second-in-command in the Agency, Clyde Tolson. So there is absolutely no excuse for "J. Edgar," Clint Eastwood’s disappointingly conventional biopic, to be so yawn-inducing.
On the scale of Eastwood movies, J Edgar is much closer to "Flags of Our Fathers" – Serious, Important, Dull – than to the fiery originality and energy of "Letters From Iwo Jima."
You can’t blame Leonardo DiCaprio, though. When you first see him, loaded down with extremely convincing old-age padding and prosthetics, you wonder if you’ll ever forget that baby-face Leo is inside there, but before long you do. As the film flashes back and forth in time, with Hoover in his last years dictating his sometimes fabricated memoirs to various agents, we see him as a young gung-ho agent fighting anarchists, a middle-aged authoritarian wrangling with FDR and an old man clinging to power in the Nixon era. DiCaprio inhabits him and makes him consistent at every stage. What he doesn’t have is a good enough script to work with.
Dustin Lance Black (who also wrote "Milk") hits all the high points, but when you connect the dots all you get is a sketchy outline. He tells the story from Hoover’s point-of-view, but it’s the Hoover who showed himself in public, not the private, unknowable man. What we see most forcefully is his sincerity: Hoover truly believed that Communism would lead to tyranny and anarchy. To him, deporting American anarchists like Emma Goldman was justified. But labeling someone sincere – or fierce and angry, as DiCaprio’s perpetual glower conveys - is not the same as creating a character.
As we follow Hoover’s career, including a long interlude about the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping, the odd couple of Eastwood and Black seem to bring out the worst in each other. Instead of masterful Clint, we get somber and leaden. Instead of sensitive Black, we get shallow.
There are even some laughable scenes. Judi Dench plays Hoover’s overbearing mother. When we first see her, hair in a bun and back to the camera before she swirls around, there is an unmistakable echo of "Psycho." Homage or howler, you decide. But keep "Psycho" in mind when we get to the one scene in which Hoover wears a dress. That episode is carefully constructed so the film has it both ways: he puts on a dress, but under such extenuating circumstances that "J. Edgar" doesn’t exactly call him a cross-dresser.
Hoover’s mysterious personal life is what really intrigues people, of course. And in showing how deeply closeted he was, the film comes alive enough to reveal him as a sad figure. Hoover has lunch and dinner with Tolson every day, vacations with him, does everything except sleep with him. He obviously can’t deal with his own desire.
Armie Hammer is shot to look his prettiest as the young Tolson, who is obviously full of desire for Edgar, as well as loyalty. Hammer was so good as the Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network" that I’m still surprised there’s just one of him in real life. And he delivers in a big, momentous scene in which both men are practically forced to declare their love. But Hammer’s stiff old-man shuffle and more conspicuous old-age makeup is no match for DiCaprio’s aging process.
Naomi Watts is elegant young and old as Helen Gandy, whom Hoover proposed to on their third date. She had no interest in marrying but became his ultra-loyal secretary for the rest of their lives. But all these actors can do is go through the motions of their stick-figure characters.
Yes, we hear Hoover say “Information is power,” and see him blackmailing Robert Kennedy with a secret recording of JFK having sex with an East German woman. And in the end this clunky film is still likely to leave you thinking: Show me something I didn’t know about J. Edgar Hoover.