He lived way too long with his domineering mother, he hogged a few headlines, and he circulated some nasty letters. That's a fairly light slap on the wrist, given the vast, crypto-fascist reach of J. Edgar Hoover, America's first director of the FBI. J. Edgar is infuriatingly coy and noncritical about its subject, an undeniable patriot but also an alarmist and a ruiner of lives.
Bouncing between pre-Depression anarchist bombings and Kennedy-era dictation, the movie (generically scripted by Milk's Dustin Lance Black) is a weird opportunity for Leonardo DiCaprio to parade around in some largely unbelievable prosthetics and put an uptight snap in his voice. Never do you fully get a sense of the reverence Hoover inspired, nor the rage; distracting turns by Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick and a pained-looking Naomi Watts as devoted secretary Helen Gandy only emphasize the awkwardness of the enterprise.
Is it all director Clint Eastwood's fault? He's played a lot of brutalizers in his day, but the former Dirty Harry is certainly capable of political critique (the remarkable Flags of Our Fathers). His detachment from the fury Hoover inspired is a missed opportunity for insight and humor. Meanwhile, this most traditional of filmmakers has taken it upon himself to attempt his own po-faced Brokeback Mountain, with Hoover's closeted sex life here presented as nonjudgmentally as possible. (The Social Network's Armie Hammer, as Hoover's right-hand man and secret lover Clyde Tolson, steals the movie with his smooth, velvety voice and some barely contained jealousy.) The tender scenes between the two men are surpassingly strange, given the historical whitewashing: They're like watching Darth Vader peel an egg in the breakfast nook for dear, dotty Emperor Palpatine.
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