J. Edgar (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
Because nothing is more intriguing than people, and because celebrated people are theoretically even more intriguing, it continues to be a frustration that cinematic bio-pics generally work better as anesthesia than as drama. And it's largely because they continue to make the same, inexcusable mistake: assuming that "who" and "what" are more interesting questions than "why."
Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have as a subject one of America's most enigmatic, polarizing figures in J. Edgar Hoover, and yet J. Edgar almost never offers the buzz of discovery. It's merely a 50-year kaleidoscope of American history, with the founder of the modern FBI serving as Forrest Gump.
The narrative opens during the Kennedy administration, with Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) seething over the growing esteem of Martin Luther King. Determined to "re-clarify the difference between villain and hero," Hoover begins dictating his life story to a series of assistants, flashing back to his early days in the Justice Department circa 1919, through the creation of the F.B.I. and its Depression-era rise to prominence.
Of course, certain subjects won't be part of Hoover's "official" story, including the most important people in his life: his mother (Judi Dench); his trusted personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and his assistant and constant companion, Clyde Tolson (The Social Network's Armie Hammer).
From the very outset, J. Edgar has the feel of something that's more than slightly ... off. DiCaprio's performance registers as forced, as he attempts to imitate Hoover's distinctive precise speech patterns (the result of therapy to counteract a childhood stutter) — and that's even when he's not buried beneath old-age makeup. The chronological ping-ponging between the 1960s and Hoover's early career proves disorienting. And while Eastwood's stately direction plods through individual scenes, the scenes never add up to a story — or, more significantly, to a life.
That's partly because J. Edgar spends nearly as much time name-dropping as it does anything else. Scenes involving Hoover's interactions with the likes of Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple, Charles Lindbergh, Robert Kennedy and others come off as gimmicky rather than part of an exploration of the subject's desire for the spotlight.
J. Edgar spends a fair amount of time on Hoover's involvement in the celebrated "Lindbergh baby" kidnapping and the subsequent trial of Bruno Hauptmann, including the role of new forensic science championed by Hoover. While it might have been fascinating to understand how Hoover's personality played a role in his dedication to meticulous police work, the film treats the subject as a curiosity, perhaps a piece of Hoover's legacy to "balance" the more notorious aspects of his iron-fisted reign and keeping of secret files.
You'd expect that at the very least, J. Edgar would try to understand the much-speculated-upon relationship between Hoover and Tolson, especially given a screenwriter like Black (Milk). Indeed, there are a few effective moments capturing the tension between the deeply closeted (in Black's interpretation) Hoover and Tolson, as well as the influence of Hoover's mother on his life. But nobody pulls it all together as character study: what it meant to be a man hiding his own secrets while digging up everyone else's; how Hoover, the committed law-enforcement professional connected to Hoover, the publicity-hound.
For 140 minutes, J. Edgar strolls through an American life pointing at people and things, blind to the reality that nothing could be more compelling than the man in the middle.