It's difficult to imagine a film that begs for an Academy Award as desperately - and as fruitlessly - as J. Edgar.

You know just from the trailer that this is Oscar bait. Even before you discover that it was penned by Dustin Lance Black, who picked up the best original screenplay Oscar for Milk at the 2009 ceremony, and that it was directed by Clint Eastwood, the Academy's most-nominated director.

Not to mention being populated by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, and Armie Hammer – all part of the pretty-people-with-acting-chops family. So, naturally, you're left with one question when the screening's over: where did all the talent go?

We're aided (or, more often, impeded) by a woefully executed time-jumping contrivance: Old man Hoover dictate his life's story to various young male typists while the bad prosthetics-free version of DiCaprio whisks us through a smattering of poorly connected biographical highs and lows.

We observe him cantankerously forming the FBI, appearing in comic books and apprehending the Lindbergh kidnapper. The largest component of this clumsy personal narrative is occupied by Hoover's relationship with his “companion” Clyde Tolson, whose tender and delicate performance by Armie Hammer turns out to be the film's highest point.

Sadly, despite Hammer and DiCaprio's chemistry as chaste lovers (both physically and verbally), the film's investigation into their relationship, and Hoover's sexuality in general, has difficulty moving beyond the blunt fact of Hoover's apparent denial.

Indeed it seems that the Freudian reactionary tendencies stemming from Hoover's private life are a preoccupation to the detriment of clarity in the story of his public life. This seems something of a waste, as in the former case we get the point well enough twenty minutes in.

Though Hoover's crusade against privacy (and, of course, communists) in the name of protecting Americans with modern forensic science does provoke some comparisons to the current sociopolitical climate (especially with Harper's cyber spying bill still fresh in our minds), such thoughts still can't distract us from the embarrassingly lazy visuals.

Between the conspicuously repetitive camera placement and the ineffective muted lighting, we start to worry that maybe old Squint Eastwood has finally succumbed to some eye damage after all these years.

Then, when a hideous score – truly, the audible groans in the theatre would have been preferable – is piled on the aforementioned stilted storytelling and and sorry cinematography, the 132 minute running time becomes a true marathon.

Suffice it to say, if you're not familiar with this giant of 20th century American political history, this is probably not the place to start, and if you are familiar, rest assured that it doesn't crack open any of Hoover's secret files.

It does feature Leonardo DiCaprio in a dress, however. So there's that.

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: Eastwood does few favours for Hoover’s legacy
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