- Running time:
- 137 minutes
- Leonardo DiCaprio -
- J. Edgar Hoover
- Naomi Watts -
- Helen Gandy
- Armie Hammer -
- Clyde Tolson
- Josh Lucas -
- Charles Lindbergh
- Judi Dench -
- Annie Hoover
In his twilight years, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) decides to recount his career in a biography. As he focuses on his investigation into the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby and efforts to protect America from Communists and radicals, he also faces memories of his domineering mother (Judi Dench), fiercely loyal secretary (Naomi Watts) and mysterious relationship with dashing second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
The buzz: The latest directorial effort from 81-year-old workhorse Clint Eastwood boasts a script by Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) and a small but awards-baiting core cast. It’s also a rare big screen project to focus on Hoover, who more frequently turns up on the sidelines of historical sagas, and sparked curiosity and concern over how directly the film would deal with questions about his sexuality.
The verdict: If you’re already familiar with Hoover’s controversial reputation as an egomaniacal, paranoid, cross-dressing, closeted homosexual who also happened to run the FBI for nearly 40 years, you won’t learn much from watching “J. Edgar.” Turns out Hoover’s apparent knack for digging up dirt on others while keeping his own private life hush-hush doesn’t provide a particularly sturdy foundation for an epic or insightful bio-pic. Instead we get over two hours of speculation and conjecture in a sketchy, shallow portrait of Hoover as dogged anti-Communist crusader, mama’s boy and closet case, all handled in a timid if not subtle fashion on the way to a grossly sentimental conclusion. This is prestige pic territory, the kind of movie that’s inevitably at the center of Oscar speculation. These films can be large-scale and fascinating (like Oliver Stone’s “Nixon”) or large-scale and entertaining (like Martin Scorsese’s DiCaprio-starring “The Aviator”). And yet, despite suitably lavish production and costume design and a timeline spanning half a century, Eastwood and Black’s “J. Edgar” remains an oppressively small-scale look at a seemingly inscrutable and inarguably unpleasant man. A few caricatured historical figures pop in and out (most notably Bobby Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh and Richard Nixon), but the film is primarily constructed around just four characters. DiCaprio’s showy committed turn provides the anchor, even though he spends half the running time buried under old-age makeup, while Hammer emerges as the most significant supporting player and does what he can to give the unrequited “love story” some emotional depth. The actresses don’t fare as well: Dench chews the scenery as Hoover’s smothering mother, and Watts is wasted in a thankless role better suited to a character actress than a movie star. “J. Edgar” may not be the sort of disingenuously heroic tale Hoover would’ve spun about himself, but it’s too scattershot to feel entirely true—or at least convincing.
Did you know? Although most of the film was shot on soundstages and locations in California, the production did make use of the actual Library of Congress for a pivotal “date” scene featuring DiCaprio and Watts.
Follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter: @geoffberkshire
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