Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover, an aging FBI director who decides to dictate his memoirs because, as he plainly puts it, “it’s time this generation learns my side of the story.” Flashing back to his early days, Hoover was born to an endlessly doting mother Annie (Judi Dench), and primed for greatness. Although his brusque demeanor wins him few friends, it proves to be an asset professionally, he rises quickly through the ranks of the Justice Department, and by the age of 30 he becomes acting director of the FBI. His personal life, meanwhile, is largely empty of meaningful relationships, but he finds a reliable and loyal secretary in Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and a debonair companion (and Associate FBI Director) in Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Reinventing investigative work from the ground up, Hoover soon creates the foundations of modern forensic science, even as his personal insecurities and vendettas threaten to undermine his legacy.
The bigger problem is that nothing comes organically in the story, and there’s no momentum; one of our colleagues accurately said of the film, it has the curious balance of being “both boring and melodramatic.” Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) half-effectively depicts Hoover’s groundbreaking methodology, but the film spends probably half of its running time on the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s child, which is unquestionably important but makes the film feel uneven, whether as an audience member you see it as a celebration or condemnation of the title character. And given that material’s importance, its impact is curiously underwhelming, because the audience never gets a sense of whether Black and Eastwood think he accomplished anything positive, or if he was a petty, attention-seeking charlatan who prioritized personal feelings over procedure and fact. Ironically, there’s no doubt how Hoover sees himself, but the film bends over backwards to portray his achievements evenly, which ultimately makes for a dry and uninteresting story, no matter how well-vetted it is by actual history.
The saddest part is that underneath all of the make-up and the innuendo, DiCaprio and Hammer both give terrific performances. DiCaprio’s young-man voice notwithstanding, his commitment to the character is undeniable (and admirable), while Hammer pulls off the remarkable feat of seeming like an equal partner rather than Hoover’s trophy. Meanwhile, Eastwood’s productivity is undeniable and his proficiency is masterful, but as often as he hits the bullseye, he strays either too far into melodrama or not far enough, and letting a story like Hoover’s just sort of happen. Ultimately, a movie doesn’t need to purely vilify or honor a real person in order to make their story interesting, however in the case of “J. Edgar” the uncertainty and unwillingness to commit to a point of view, creates an oddly objective and unemotional experience for a story about one of the most polarizing figures of the last century. [C-]