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Movie Review

J. Edgar

'J. Edgar' a tough case to crack: Eastwood’s biopic sometimes gets lost in the scope of its story

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / November 11, 2011

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The tenderness of tough men has been Clint Eastwood’s lifelong theme. What is a pistol-packing cop, a tight-lipped athlete, a neighborhood thug, or a western outlaw supposed to do with emotions, in himself and in other people? Run away from them, give in to them, shoot them to pieces? Almost every movie in Eastwood’s immense and respected body of work grapples with this issue, and “J. Edgar’’ turns out to be no different. Actually, looking at the film through the prism of its maker’s obsessions is the only way it makes sense.

The movie lands with a thud in the middle of this year’s awards sweepstakes, and it has all the required elements: a flawed historical figure played by a top-tier Hollywood star, a historical scope spanning six decades, impassioned monologues, endless layers of old age makeup. That “J. Edgar’’ never ultimately convinces - that at times it’s quite entertainingly bad - can be blamed on both an unfocused script and the project’s very bigness. Somewhere in this ambitious, meticulously produced epic is a small love story struggling to get out.

No, this isn’t “Brokeback Washington,’’ although it might have been a tighter, better film if it were. As written by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk’’), “J. Edgar’’ tries to tell the story of how FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) came to power in the 1930s - as he narrates the story to a succession of young agents in the late ’60s - and increasingly abused that power in the decades that followed; how he blackmailed the mighty with his legendary secret files; how his anti-Communist paranoia led to a warped vendetta against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The film plays hopscotch with all these eras, jumping back and forth until the only way you can tell when you are is by the length of the wattles under Hoover’s chin. The story needs a spine, and Black and Eastwood ultimately provide one with the kidnapping of the 18-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) in 1932 and the national uproar that followed. Hoover used the crime to demonstrate his new forensic methods - there’s a lot of scoffing over the FBI director’s fascination with fingerprints - and the capture, conviction, and execution of Bruno Hauptmann (Damon Herriman) allowed the Bureau to successfully press the government for expanded powers.

This is all pretty interesting, except that it has little to do with the emotional mainspring of the film: the relationship between Hoover and his longtime right-hand man, Clyde Tolson. The two worked together for 40 years, vacationed together, and are buried next to each other, but no convincing proof of a romantic or sexual relationship has ever surfaced. Which is how the movie plays it: as the love that dare not speak its name even to itself. In this telling, Hoover adores Tolson with all his heart but can never bring himself to say what that means, let alone act on it. J. Edgar, says “J. Edgar,’’ knew everybody’s secrets but his own.

That’s meaty stuff, and DiCaprio digs right in. The actor’s J. Edgar is close cousin to his Howard Hughes - a control freak but without the rebellious urge to fly high and prove everyone wrong. This Hoover believes in America, apple pie, and above all in the sacredness of motherhood, especially when that mother (Judi Dench at her frostiest) is telling him she’d rather have a dead son than a “daffodil.’’

There’s a brief nod toward straight romance early on, when the rising agent woos Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), the prettiest secretary in the bureau, but she’s as driven as he is and instead becomes his loyal watchdog to the end. “J. Edgar’’ only pops convincingly to life when Tolson appears on the scene, played by Armie Hammer, the Winklevi of “The Social Network.’’

It’s a terrific performance, perhaps the subtlest in the movie. Tolson is the story’s emotional fulcrum and its truest tragedy: a comfortably gay man in love with a man fully in denial. Tolson also becomes the moral conscience of “J. Edgar,’’ voicing his doubts as Hoover dips into his files and comes out with dirt on Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Yet the many sides of this movie, the personal and the political, the Lindbergh baby and MLK, refuse to intertwine in any meaningful way, even as Eastwood keeps things rumbling along with gorgeously produced period detail. What’s the takeaway here? That America would be a better country if J. Edgar Hoover had only gotten lucky? That’s too reductive by half, but the film doesn’t offer any larger vision or message.

The makeup gets in the way of the drama, too. After a while you buy into DiCaprio’s old Hoover, with his taut, shiny skin and those bright brown eyes. Watts’s Gandy is less believable and Hammer looks like Boris Karloff’s Mummy by the final scenes, the spark of his performance swallowed alive by latex. Why not cast older actors in these scenes, as in the recent “The Debt’’? Because then the young stars wouldn’t get their climactic, Oscar-worthy speeches, that’s why.

In the end, there’s little for audiences to do but marvel at the pieces and try not to get the camp giggles. That’s admittedly tough when Hoover and Tolson are punching each other out in the closest they’ll ever come to sex, a scene as brutally touching as it is ridiculous. And it may be impossible during Hoover’s most emotionally vulnerable moment, when he goes where no Clint Eastwood hero has yet gone and where rumors pursued J. Edgar Hoover but never caught up. After giving us love and Tommy guns, anarchists and presidents, criminology and closets, “J. Edgar’’ may finally go too far when it asks us to say yes to the dress.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

J. EDGAR Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Written by: Dustin Lance Black

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 137 minutes

Rated: R (brief strong language)

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