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 for the Red scare. A vignette in a movie theater depicting an audience booing a clip of Hoover, then cheering when the projectionist cuts Hoover short and starts a Jimmy Cagney gangster feature, illustrates the folk-hero status that gangland figures enjoyed in those days, and offers some perspective on Hoover's interest in promoting the figure of the heroic G-man in comic books and movies.
But it's not enough to show us these things: Hoover has to say things like "They've forgotten the bombs, the terror, the raids." And "Just like the Communist before him, the gangster finally fell from favor; now children dreamed of joining the FBI." The more he explains to his biographers, the less room there is for the mystery that Hoover himself told us is needed. Toward the end, the film undercuts some of what we've seen by revealing that Hoover hasn't been honest with his biographers, but here too we're simply told what happened in a way that undermines rather than enhances any mystery.
Over the course of its long 137-minute running length, J. Edgar hits all the expected marks. The film makes much of Hoover's doting but domineering mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench), who tells her son at one point that she'd rather have a dead son than one who is a "daffodil" (daffodils apparently being equivalent in this connection to pansies). The Lindbergh kidnapping gets a prolonged chapter. The Kansas City massacre, the JFK assassination, and Hoover's vendetta against Martin Luther King Jr. are all present and accounted for. Shirley Temple and Ginger Rodgers put in appearances. Yet the film has little if anything interesting to say about any of this.