‘J. Edgar’ has a lot of explaining to do

Posted Nov. 10, 2011, at 10:29 p.m.
In this image taken Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, actor Leonardo DiCaprio poses with director Clint Eastwood at a private screening of their film, &quotJ. Edgar," at the Time Warner Screening Room in New York.
Dave Allocca | AP
In this image taken Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, actor Leonardo DiCaprio poses with director Clint Eastwood at a private screening of their film, "J. Edgar," at the Time Warner Screening Room in New York.

J. EDGAR; directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, written by Dustin Lance Black, a Warner Brothers release; Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas; MPAA Rating: R for brief strong language.

Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” is a lumbering miscalculation, a slow and clumsy re-think of the late F.B.I. founder J. Edgar Hoover’s life and career that views his him through the lens of his alleged homosexuality.

While the screenwriter of “Milk” didn’t script a “gay fantasia” on Hoover’s successes and monomaniacal excesses, he has written a film that provokes more inappropriate laughter than any mainstream period piece since Oliver Stone’s “Alexander.”

It’s fascinating to interpret Hoover’s career through his twin obsessions — his experiences battling Bolshevik bomb throwers in the “Red Scare” of 1919-1020 that made him fear communists more than mobsters, and the conflicted, “my big secret” that was his personal life, which made him a fussy hypocritical moralist.

But if you’re not snickering at the sight of Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime “close associate” Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer of “The Social Network”) in bathrobes, reading Hoover’s “secret files” on the sex lives of the powerful and giggling like a couple of gossipy queens, you’re going to be in the minority.

Eastwood’s film skips back and forth between the present, where Hoover is dictating his memoirs to a succession of “loyal” F.B.I. agent-typists, and the past, in which the young card catalog organizer of the Library of Congress brings his data collecting skills to the bureau that was built around him. We see the night of anarchist bombings that almost killed his boss, Mitchell Palmer ( Geoff Pierson), the sloppy, ineffective way that case was handled and Hoover’s determination to bring forensic science and a clearinghouse of fingerprints and other data to his new bureau so that c rimes like this didn’t go unpunished.

We get a taste of his zeal — for Hoover was nothing if not a lifelong zealot — and his early willingness to trample the Constitution, with mass arrests and beatings of labor organizers and mass deportations of “foreign-born radicals” during that incendiary era. From those early excesses, we see the corrupting influence of power. Hoover’s discovery of the utility of blackmail and intimi dation when it came to political foes becomes a running thread as he visits president after president, and later Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), and lets slip what he “has on them” as a way of keeping his organization funded and himself in power.

DiCaprio is, of course, all wrong for the part — entirely too tall, for starters. The makeup that ages him into a jowly older man gives him an eerie resemblance to Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” We wonder, since he is nicknamed him “Speed” because he talks too darned fast, why DiCaprio isn’t talking that fast at all. Then, in press conference recreations, Hoover’s rapid staccato kicks in and we forget he’s Leo. It’s an impressive, if far from definitive, impersonation.

The “romance” of the tale, the way Hoover met, hired and in effect “courted” Tolson to be his personal aide and adjutant, is awkward and chaste. Hoover’s “loyalty, above all” credo suggests what he truly valued in Tolson, and not just his dreamy eyes and seductive smile.

History buffs will enjoy seeing Hoover’s era through the lens Dustin Lance Black has written for the film — shamed by a congressman for not being making arrests himself (in essence, not being a “real man”), we see the glory hound Hoover inject himself into manhunts and personally lobby for changes in the laws that allow the F.B.I. to take over the investigation of the “Crime of the Ce ntury,” the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.

Judi Dench ably conveys the stern mother who suspects her son might be a “daffodil,” but who hectors him into smoking, overeating and manning up, as it were. Josh Lucas cuts a fine figure as Charles Lindbergh. But the casting of many bit players is weak as Eastwood goes for lookalike Nixons, Emma Goldmans and the like, and not charismatic actors. The structure of the film calls too muc h attention to itself — aged Hoover and Tolson entering an elevator, their youthful selves stepping out of it.

There’s balance to the storytelling, showing Hoover’s innovations and triumphs as well as his pettiness and hypocrisy. Black even makes the man something of a prophet on Richard Nixon and the suppression of America’s violent radicals at both ends of the political spectrum.

But truth be told, “J. Edgar” drags, even when it pays homage to the widely discredited urban legend that the guy liked to dress in drag. The little man makes for a big subject, and an important one. Somehow, scene by scene and character by character, Hoover always seems just beyond Eastwood’s grasp.

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