Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

The life of J. Edgar Hoover was fascinating enough to warrant an entire mini-series, let alone a movie. Heading both the Bureau of Investigation and FBI, which he founded, over the span of nearly 50 years, Hoover spearheaded countless probes into the lives of criminals, politicians, activists, and whatever other public figures needed a closer look. Even more interesting was his private life; the common belief is that Hoover shared a more-than-platonic love with Clyde Tolson, his right-hand man who eventually upgraded to Associate Director of the FBI. Hoover’s methods were also eventually called into question, with his naysayers citing illegal means used to obtain his damaging information about the powerful and famous.

It’s all there, a wealth of material just waiting to be streamlined into a colossal biopic. And, considering that Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, starring Leonardo Dicaprio as the titular icon, is such a jumbled, unevenly paced, and altogether disappointing misfire, it’s still there for the taking—somebody call HBO about that proposed mini-series. And make sure the cable network hires a different makeup team, prosthetics experts who can make the older versions of Hoover and Tolson resemble something other than Johnny Knoxville and Spike Jonze in one of those "old man" Jackass segments.

 

Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is a jumbled, unevenly paced, and altogether disappointing misfire.

 

If only cheesy makeup was the film’s biggest issue, though. The main problem lies in Dustin Lance Black’s script, a sluggish attempt to mesh Hoover’s private life with the FBI’s genesis and one of his biggest cases, the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby son. Black, who won an Academy Award for the vastly superior Milk, is far more comfortable imagining what went on inside Hoover’s home, in which he lived with his god-fearing tyrant of a mother, Annie Hoover (Judi Dench), and his private dealings with Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer). J. Edgar soars during its personal moments; a scene where Hoover’s mother coldly states that she’d rather have a dead son than a “daffodil” hits especially hard. As Eastwood’s film speculates, Hoover was basically a scared mama’s boy in a maverick’s visage.

Yet that’s all J. Edgar allows us to understand. Dicaprio gives the performance his all, expanding upon the script’s messy characterization with painful eyes, emotional fragility, and the compulsive disposition of an insecure man obsessed with others’ opinions. That desire to come off as the country’s macho cavalier is effectively personified in a montage where Hoover muscles his way to the front of the agents’ line during arrests, as well as Hoover’s seething distrust of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. (the latter gets “outed” as a skirt-chasing lothario in one particularly brave scene).

But those instances of newsworthy character inspection aren’t explored deeply enough to resonate beyond inspiring audience members to Google Hoover's story once the movie ends. Eastwood, curiously lenient with Black’s scatterbrained script, makes the film look strikingly dreamlike at times without fine-tuning it for the heaviest possible dramatic impact. The same man who directed the airtight historical triumphs Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima too passively gives Black the power; together, Eastwood and Black have constructed a character study without presenting a firm thesis statement.

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)