Andy Bockelman: ‘J. Edgar’ breaks no laws, but offers little historical insight |

Andy Bockelman: ‘J. Edgar’ breaks no laws, but offers little historical insight

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.
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“J. Edgar”

2.5 out of 4 stars

137 minutes

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench.

“J. Edgar”

2.5 out of 4 stars

137 minutes

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench.

When you’re responsible for taking on the criminal element of an entire country, some of your personal information is bound to be on a need-to-know basis.

Based on what we already know — or think we know — about the enigmatic, eponymous man of “J. Edgar,” peering deeper into his dossier could unearth some very significant revelations.

Or could it?

Bright, ambitious and rigorous to a fault, young law enforcer John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is resolute in his crusade to stomp out anarchy in 1920s America. His tactics on the job with the Justice Department lead to a promotion as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

As he takes up the new mantle, Hoover makes some sweeping changes in the agency, imposing higher standards on personnel and challenging the limits of his authority in the relatively new government office.

Becoming a public icon for his efforts to fight crime and protect the nation’s people is an uphill journey, but he has never been one to back down.

As the years go by, new threats against public safety spring up everywhere, leading to an increase in Hoover’s amount of power in his position at the newly instated FBI. But, along with prestige comes countless political enemies, with the lawman’s covert style drawing the ire of nearly everyone in Washington.

It’s impossible to fathom who else could have played such a controversial and storied figure as Hoover.

DiCaprio’s background in portraying larger-than-life men speaks for itself, whether as the fictionalized version of Louis XIV of “The Man in the Iron Mask” or the pre-hermit Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.”

There’s just as much material to work with here, as he walks the fine line between Hoover’s often explosive temper when dealing with people he doesn’t like and his staunch, repressed personal life and inclinations, which even his closest allies don’t fully understand.

Armie Hammer’s bit as Hoover’s deputy, Clyde Tolson, comes off as sincere but overly fey, leaving little imagination as to his relationship with his superior.

Naomi Watts overcomes a similar problem as Hoover’s lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy, whose faithfulness at managing her boss’s affairs makes her one of the few trustworthy people in his circle, devoting her life to the bureau nearly as much as he.

To say Hoover was single-minded and demanding in getting what he wanted during his ascension to prominence would be an understatement.

Any historian could have told you that, along with some cutting commentary about the public figure’s squabbles with the likes of the Roosevelts and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), whose family he saw as only a step away from the Communists and gangsters he despised.

His manipulation of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s (Josh Lucas) infant son as a stepping stone to new levels of clout is a fascinating chapter, but that’s given less attention than it deserves in lieu of more sensational moments.

The urban legends of Hoover’s private life as a cross-dresser are neither confirmed nor denied by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who strays back into “Milk” territory by focusing heavily on his subject’s much-discussed sexuality.

Showing a gay relationship in a time when such things weren’t socially acceptable may have worked for “Brokeback Mountain,” but just like “Alexander,” the circumstances in this instance are purely speculative about the people involved.

For that matter, did Hoover’s supposed homosexual leanings really have anything to do with the man he became?

The Lady Macbeth-like depiction of his mother (Judi Dench) suggests he might have been a much different person if he hadn’t been pushed in one direction, but that feels like a cop-out for a man who was extremely opinionated and driven by his very nature.

Clint Eastwood’s direction awkwardly frames Hoover in his declining years, going over his memoirs and expressing few regrets, yet the cinematography of Tom Stern is so lacking in color saturation, that everything onscreen almost appears in shades of gray. Ironic for a man who saw everything in absolute black and white.

With questionable plot points such as the revelation that Hoover settled on his preferred designation based on a credit application for a department store, “J. Edgar” is a prime example of how a movie can have everything going for it — great cast, director and production team — and yet misstep so severely that it amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

Still, there’s something to be said for a film that can take the star of “Titanic” and through the magic of makeup, turn him into a stocky lump of liver spots and make it convincing.

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