Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have as a subject one of American history's most enigmatic, polarizing figures in J. Edgar Hoover, and yet J. Edgar almost never offers the buzz of discovery. It's merely a 50-year kaleidoscope of American history, with the founder of the FBI serving as Forrest Gump.
The narrative opens during the Kennedy administration, with Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) seething over the growing esteem of Martin Luther King. Determined to "re-clarify the difference between villain and hero," Hoover begins dictating his life story to a series of assistants, flashing back to his early days in the Justice Department circa 1919, through the creation of the FBI and its Depression-era rise to prominence. Of course, certain subjects won't be part of Hoover's "official" story, including the most important people in his life: his mother (Judi Dench); his trusted personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and his assistant and constant companion, Clyde Tolson (The Social Network's Armie Hammer).
From the outset, J. Edgar has the feel of something that's more than slightly off. DiCaprio's performance registers as forced, as he attempts to imitate Hoover's distinctively precise speech patterns - and that's even when he's not buried beneath old-age makeup. The chronological ping-ponging between the 1960s and Hoover's early career proves disorienting. Eastwood's stately direction plods through individual scenes, but the scenes never add up to a story - or, more significantly, add up to a life.
That's partly because J. Edgar spends nearly as much time name-dropping as it does anything else. While Hoover certainly socialized with both statesmen and celebrities, interactions with the likes of Shirley Temple and Robert Kennedy come off as gimmicky rather than part of an exploration of Hoover's desire for the spotlight. But this is what happens in movies that treat a life as nothing more than a timeline, with the bullet points devoted to encounters with other famous people or headline-grabbing incidents.
You'd expect that at the very least, J. Edgar would try to understand the much-speculated-upon relationship between Hoover and Tolson, especially given a screenwriter like Black (Milk). Indeed, there are a few effective moments capturing the tension between deeply closeted (in Black's interpretation) Hoover and Tolson. But nobody involved seems to understand how to pull it all together as character study: what it meant to be a man hiding his own secrets while digging up everyone else's; how Hoover the committed law-enforcement professional connected to Hoover the publicity hound. For 140 minutes, J. Edgar strolls through an American life pointing at people and things, blind to the reality that nothing could be more compelling than the man in the middle.