The life and work of J. Edgar Hoover offers grist for a dozen different movies or more, and Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar wants to be all of them at once. It's the sort of staidly respectable, competently directed biopic that gives a bad name to competently directed biopics, and possibly to respectability.
Everything that ought to happen does happen, but seldom with much sense of urgency or revelation. The one question in which the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (writer of the biopic Milk, about gay-rights activist Harvey Milk) takes a vital interest is whether the perpetual flirtation between Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man Clyde Tolson (The Social Network's Armie Hammer) will or won't spill over into physicality.
Like Richard Attenborough's reverential Chaplin (starring Robert Downey Jr,), J. Edgar takes a lazy shortcut to summarizing its subject's life: depicting the great man dictating his memoir, the better to assure his legacy and that of his beloved agency. This device allows Black to put in Hoover's mouth nuggets apparently drawn from his own notes for the screenplay, such as, "Believe what you will about historians—most write from a present perspective, forgetting context." And "Let's leave that to the reader's imagination. It's important to preserve a bit of mystery about our hero." Hoover even goes so far as to caution his scribe that "Even great men can be corrupted"—meaning, of course, other great men.
J. Edgar does offer some historical context. A dramatic early depiction of the anarchist bombings of 1919 and the Palmer raids that followed, including a raid on the Russian People's House in New York that allegedly turned up bomb-making material, reminds us that there was some real basis ...