It may be no coincidence that Leonardo DiCaprio's old-age make-up as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover makes him resemble the young Orson Welles playing the elderly Charles Foster Kane. Clint Eastwood's biopic J. Edgar emulates Citizen Kane as a portrait of a powerful American who struggles with personal corruption and the inability to love over the course of his life.
J. Edgar covers some fascinating territory in its account of the early history of the FBI, but the film never offers a compelling tale of a good man who succumbs to his worst impulses. Hoover doesn't come across as an idealist who betrayed his good intentions. From the beginning, DiCaprio's Hoover is a paranoid Justice Department apparatchik who craves glory, amasses power, exploits the secrets of his political rivals, and makes the Bureau his personal KGB for nearly 50 years.
The film begins in the 1960s with an aging Hoover narrating a self-aggrandizing memoir to a rotating retinue of young FBI agents and scheming to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr., whom he perceives as a communist. In flashbacks, J. Edgar echoes the complexity of the war on terror as young Hoover seeks ways to persecute potential anarchists for their beliefs, rather than their actual deeds. DiCaprio unquestionably commits to his performance of Hoover as a petty, obsessive, emotionally constipated workaholic, but the make-up, however competent, never ceases to be a distraction. Even less convincing are the actors hired to play Bobby Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and Richard Nixon (Christopher Shyer).
Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk, finds a through-line in Hoover's complicated relationship with assistant FBI director and longtime companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network). Together, the two men make fascinating contrasts: Hoover squirms in the company of women except his domineering mother (Judi Dench) and seems unable to admit his true nature. As Tolson, Hammer steals scenes without even speaking by radiating a discrete, half-amused ease with himself and his bond with Hoover.
J. Edgar addresses some of the positive aspects of Hoover's career, such as his advocacy for fingerprinting and other CSI techniques, as well as a centerpiece about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case. Given his clearly unreliable recollections, though, it's difficult to gauge what's meant to be taken at face value. Eastwood's film amasses a damning, detailed file on Hoover without seeming passionate over whether he was America's No. 1 G-man, or its No. 1 public enemy.