Film fails as lesson in history or love

Film fails as lesson in history or love

‘J. Edgar’

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio,

Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts

Director: Clinet Eastwood

Rated: PG-13

If you’re going to make a movie about J. Edgar Hoover, then tell me something I don’t know about him. That the lifelong F.B.I. chief was a power hungry, paranoid, self-aggrandizing egomaniac who was most likely a closeted gay is well known. So it is unfortunate that Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) don’t bring anything new to this ponderous biopic that spans the director’s lengthy career.

From Eastwood’s languid direction to Black’s plodding script, there are no revelations, just a loosely told life story using flashbacks to detail Hoover’s career and personal life. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the iconic Hoover, the film begins in his last days as Nixon is taking office. Feeling the need to get an autobiography on paper, he begins dictating his life story to a series of fresh-faced junior agents who come and go as they peck away at a typewriter set up in the director’s inner sanctum.

In a muddled non-linear fashion, the film jumps from present day to milestones in Hoover’s long career, including how he became director of the F.B.I. From his obsession with communist subversives, which is how he gained unprecedented power to wiretap anyone he deemed a threat to national security, to his early-on realization that knowledge is power and information was the most important currency inside the Beltway, Eastwood lopes through the story at a snail’s pace. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the organized crime era, his rocky relationship with John and Bobby Kennedy, his foiled attempt to discredit Martin Luther King, the infamous secret files he kept on politicians and celebrities — these abuses of power are well documented points in Hoover’s reign. But Eastwood covers them anyway, without delivering anything revelatory. And inexplicably, there are decades of his career that are not covered, while too much time is spent on the Lindbergh case.

Turning to Hoover’s personal life, Eastwood introduces us to his mother Annie (Judi Dench), a helicopter parent if ever there was one and a religious kook to boot. More titillating, although no more revealing, is the introduction of Hoover’s life pal (if not partner), Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Although Eastwood chooses to leave the true nature of the relationship to our imagination, there are uncomfortably mawkish scenes that clumsily try to show how devoted the two were to one another.

One in particular has the two tussling around on the floor in a sexually-charged fistfight ignited when Hoover reveals he has been on a couple of dates with, of all starlets, Dorothy Lamour, and hold on for this — they have been intimate. Tolson crumples and then unleashes his anger on the stunned Hoover, who then literally begs him not to go. It’s not so much an awkward moment for Hoover and Tolson as it must have been for DiCaprio and Hammer to have to recite the trite dialog drawn from Black’s overactive imagination.

To cover the span of Hoover’s life requires DiCaprio to spend over half the film under layers of facial prosthetics that are distracting and not very realistic. Hammer looks equally as bad under mounds of facial padding and poor Naomi Watts, who is wasted in the role of Helen Gandy, Hoover’s devoted secretary, must also undergo the unflattering transformation into middle and advanced age for the part.

DiCaprio gives an earnest performance capturing the pugnacious demeanor and distinctive speech of Hoover, but talk of Oscar nominations may be premature. Eastwood’s trademark style — the washed out cinematography, his self-composed piano tinklings that underscore key scenes, the unhurried pace — is not the right fit for this film that can’t decide if it’s a history lesson or a love story. One thing’s for sure. As much as he loved the limelight, ol’ J. Edgar is probably turning over in his grave right now.