What drives an ostensibly paranoid and resentful little man to become the most powerful individual in the world? More interesting still, under what pretense of morality does this man choose to wield that power? These are the seemingly broad questions, as complex at their core as they are meaningful in scope, tackled in “J. Edgar,” the biopic about the controversial former head of the FBI.
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Morality is a word thrown around a lot in this movie. And in a curious sort of way, J. Edgar Hoover’s interpretation of the term is as flawed as the film itself. One of those flaws is the convoluted nature of the script, which spans nearly seven decades, jumping between the latter parts of Hoover’s life and the FBI’s formative years.
Traversing back and forth from the ’30s to the late ’60s, the audience gets a rather muted but believable interpretation of the two cases that vaulted the fledgling agency to nationwide prominence: the execution of John Dillinger and the capture of Bruno Hauptmann, the man charged with kidnapping and killing Charles Lindbergh, Jr.
Every frame onscreen is painted with a striking palette of gray and black, bringing to life some of the darkest undertones that reverberate through the script. Etched deep within the confines of Hoover’s troubled persona, these undertones are a result of the late FBI director’s inability to accept who he is: a closeted homosexual.
As expected, Clint Eastwood’s (“Million Dollar Baby”) direction relies heavily on this emotional centerfold, using the relationship Hoover develops with his colleague Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, “The Social Network”) as an anchor to ground this decades long tale. As he has in all of his previous directorial efforts, Eastwood works hard to weed out the excessive cinematic frills so that natural human interactions can take center stage.
Unfortunately, the weighty script, penned by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), is just too muddled by its own density to give these relationships any room to breathe. The movie never fully recovers from the poor scripting, like the decision to skip randomly between different segments of Hoover’s life. Doing so allows the audience to witness the everlasting nature of the bureau Hoover built from the ground up, but it becomes hard to digest in a movie lasting over two hours.
Despite inadequacies in the dialogue, Leonardo DiCaprio (“Inception”) manages to deliver a powerhouse performance pitch perfect in its encapsulation of Hoover’s tormented personality. Cry as one may about the supposedly inaccurate or inconsistent accent he employs, DiCaprio never leaves even the shadow of a doubt that he has left behind the pretty-boy character type that once defined his career.
At its heart, this film is about how a man struggled to fill a void in his identity through his devotion to country and work. Though he ended up one of the greatest tragic heroes of his time, the movie chooses to dilute his story with a bland mix of historical context and stale writing. Regrettably, what results is a good film that has all the makings of a great.