"J. Edgar" rises and falls as overreaching but interesting portrait

J. Edgar (2011)
137 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Leonard DiCaprio's boyishness holds him back from looking like the perfect choice for John Edgar Hoover—let alone Howard Hughes in "The Aviator"—but that never limits his gravitas. In fact, DiCaprio's powerhouse portrayal of Hoover is so complex and tragic that it never feels like an impersonation. What a pedigree "J. Edgar" has going for itself, being directed by octogenarian Clint Eastwood and written by Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for his scrupulously crafted biographical screenplay "Milk"). A thoughtful biopic of the most powerful "G-Man" lies somewhere in here, but the film itself is less than great, its reach exceeding its grasp. 

Founding and becoming the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was revered for being a leader of high intelligence and power, despite some considering him a monster. In 1919, as a 24-year-old agent, Johnny hunted for Communists and anarchists, and was then promoted to the chief job at the Bureau. He revolutionalized law enforcement with centralized fingerprinting databases, and worked under eight different presidents. Hoover gave himself credit where it was not due; embellishing stories and personally claiming to taking down notorious outlaw Machine Gun Kelly and bank robber John Dillinger and then handcuffing the man responsible for kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh's baby; and collecting dirt on Martin Luther King Jr. and others in confidential files. He had no friends or lovers, and still lived with his Mommie Dearest (well played by a frosty Judi Dench). Hoover showed no attraction to women and attempted to overcome a stuttering problem, but rather than being nurtured by his mother, she was his biggest critic. "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son," Anna Marie Hoover says to J, calling her son's light-in-his-loafers orientation a "condition." Upon meeting Bureau typist Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts), Hoover proposed to her and she refused but remained his lifelong personal secretary. Though not fitting the strict criteria for Hoover's FBI agents, he recruited tall and handsome Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) as his deputy director, who soon became his right-hand man and loyal confidante that always accompanied J. Edgar for lunch and dinner in their corner booth. 

By the very nature of a cinematic biopic, the filmmakers have to pick and choose specific events. Hopscotching back and forth from 1919 to 1972, with a "present-day" framing device set in the late 1960s, "J. Edgar" gives us a jumbled history lesson of facts and some false narration that bites off more than it can chew. DiCaprio's Hoover is made our unreliable narrator, as he recalls his diluted thoughts that are then translated onto paper by young agents, and the device pays off by the end as he's called out for his lies. Black's ambitious, expansive screenplay covers a lot of ground, touching on times in history and Edgar's personal life. It more than just suggests his repressed sexuality but only vaguely hints at the central figure's proclivity to cross-dress, triggered by his mother's death. Structurally, the film is a lumbering mess, with flashbacks and double flashbacks, and the dense, nonlinear approach offers nothing had it been told in chronological order. There are also some loose ends. For example, in an early scene at the Hoover's dinner table, we see John's niece, but never hear from his brother; and nothing is really spoken about the fate of Hoover's mental-case father, who's introduced then forgotten about. With the messy story structure comes issues with sporadically laggish pacing and overlength. 

Without a shadow of a doubt, DiCaprio astonishingly immerses himself into the role of J. Edgar. He captures the man's paranoid, maniacal side with nuance and complexity, and finds the madness to Edgar's method of always desiring control. As number-two man Clyde Tolson, the strappingly handsome Hammer (who believably pulled off playing the Winklevoss twins in 2010's "The Social Network") has great star quality. He and DiCaprio nail the chemistry between Tolson and Hoover that the passion practically burns the screen. One scene, where they're off to the horse races and end up sharing a room, starts off as flirty gossip, until Tolson's jealousy spurs on glass-throwing, some punches, and culminates in a kiss that finally breaks the ice. Even the sight of Hoover panicking after Ginger Roger's mother (Lea Thompson) asks him to dance in a nightclub is pretty amusing. Watts, as Helen Grandy, is underused, but she's the most faithful character on screen and finds more depth than what's given to her. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Shirley Temple, and President Richard Nixon all show up, but the only impersonation that really stands out is Jeffrey Donovan's RFK. 

Most effective of all, "J. Edgar" looks great, from the period detail to the painstaking production design of its art directors. The desaturated tones and noir-ish, shadowy lighting bring it a weightiness that feels substantial and germane to Edgar's own secretive demons. The make-up ages DiCaprio convincingly enough, giving him jowls and making him look like a bulldog that J. Edgar was, but the artists did a failing job with Hammer, making him look like an embalmed mummy with liver spots. And why does Dench look the same when John is a young boy as she does when she's on her death bed? 

When it's all said and done, the love story is what makes up the film's spine and helps give Hoover some sort of humanity. It's this "elephant in the room" that holds the most emotional pull and tension. Hoover buried his heart in his work and celebrity, but his love and commitment toward Tolson were always constant and felt much more than brotherly. J. Edgar was such a complicated, powerful, and controversial man that he deserves a more cohesive portrait than this, but "J. Edgar" is still an interesting albeit flawed effort.