In spite of a fusillade of P.R. overkill about what a brave, risk-taking actor he is, and how he spent five hours a day in a makeup chair squirming, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrait of a balding, sweaty, gristle-chewing, half-mad J. Edgar Hoover is gimmicky play acting. J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s exhausting chronicle of power obsession about the enigmatic, self-serving egomaniac who, as director of the F.B.I., kept America trembling with terror for half a century under the phony guise of patriotism, is a long, tedious and hollow disappointment.
Mr. Eastwood is too old to tackle a personality so complex; he knows nothing about what it takes to turn the character flaws of a cross-dressing mama’s boy into an attention-craving closet queen like Hoover. And how many prosthetics do we have to endure to watch Leonardo DiCaprio fake his way through roles like Howard Hughes and the forthcoming Frank Sinatra and Jay Gatsby—roles for which he is totally unsuited and therefore miscast. For now, we have another miscalculation in a bloodless film about a monster more pathetic than dangerous, with an odd, rambling screenplay by Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) that meanders all over the place unable to tell a story with any kind of narrative coherence. It’s not that J. Edgar is such a bad movie. (It’s not Melancholia.) But it is boring and ineffectual. There’s no passion behind it.
From his early days in the Justice Department to his death in 1972 at age 77, the movie leans heavily on the Max Factor jar to show boyish, cherubic Mr. DiCaprio in every phase of a controversial life. Some of the facts are a matter of public record. Named by Calvin Coolidge as the sixth director of what was then called the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar rose to glory and in 1935 was appointed by U. S. Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone (Ken Howard) as the first director of the newly organized F.B.I.—a position he assumed was “for life.” For the next 36 years he made all the rules, sodomized the Constitution, declared war on everything he disliked from “Bolshevik radicals” to Martin Luther King, set back the progress of the civil rights movement, used force to root out every suspected communist, and arrested 4,000 people by the time he was only 24 years old. Yes, he initiated a lot of crime-fighting technology, including fingerprints, wire-tapping and forensics labs. But he also used the F.B.I. to intimidate celebrities and public figures, harass political activists, and illegally collect secret files of alleged evidence and hearsay against everyone from mob bosses to Marilyn Monroe. Insanely jealous, he fired staff members with poor educations and cheap wardrobes and ruined the careers of special law-enforcement agents who became heroes in the tabloids, such as Chicago’s Melvin Purvis, the man who actually tracked down and killed John Dillinger while Hoover took all the credit and drove him to suicide in 1960. Soft-soaping his corruption, the movie barely touches on these facts and refuses to take a stand on the many ways he proved himself a major hypocrite. While ranting homophobic prejudices against gays, he was a closet homosexual who carried on a private love affair with assistant deputy F.B.I. director Clyde Tolson (played softly by Armie Hammer, who appeared as Mark Zuckerberg’s handsome twin adversaries in The Social Network). Inseparable, the two men are shown kissing only one time in their 40-year relationship, following a fist fight on the floor when Hoover announced he was going to marry Dorothy Lamour. Despite documented eyewitness accounts of Hoover’s secret passion for cross-dressing, fueled by his strong, dominating mother (Judi Dench, flawless again), he is revealed posing with his mother’s necklace and silk dress against his chest only once, following her death. (F.B.I. employees behind his back called him “J. Edna Hoover”.)