"Restrained" and "kindly" are not words commonly associated with J. Edgar Hoover, but they describe director Clint Eastwood's new biopic of the G-Man.
Star Leonardo DiCaprio gives a deeply etched portrait of the corrosive effects of personal secrecy, but the movie seldom examines the wider social effects of Hoover's re-invention of himself and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
At this point in his career, Eastwood is well over his fascination with nameless men bringing order through violence. Of course, that's an important part of the FBI story. Instead, "J. Edgar" focuses on the man and his relationships, whether power or intimate.
Alert to the nuances of intimacy and its discontents, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black makes "J. Edgar" a variant on the out activist hero of his "Milk." Both public figures were trying to do good as they understood it, but Hoover was burdened by trying to ignore his urges.
"What determines a man's legacy is often what isn't said," DiCaprio instructs a young FBI agent as Hoover dictates his memoirs, the movie's framing device.
Like Hoover's narrative, "J. Edgar" glosses over a lot, but it has enough Hollywood smarts to begin with a bang. On a quiet street in Washington, D.C., a bomb goes off on a porch.
The home happens to belong to Hoover's boss, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. A self-proclaimed "fighting Quaker," Palmer had been a progressive congressman, but one with deep suspicions of immigrants, especially Germans. Hoover is quickly on the scene, gathering evidence overlooked by others.
A few months after the bombing, Palmer launched widespread rides, arresting thousands of suspected radicals and providing opportunity for Hoover's Enemy Alien Bureau. Most of the cases were dismissed, and after Palmer's prediction of a wave of revolutionary violence on May Day 1920, failed to materialize, his star faded.
But Hoover got a push up the ladder at the bureau, which dated only to 1908. "J. Edgar" covers this efficiently, showing Hoover's interest in applying science to investigations, his insistence on clean-living and his eccentric rules for agents.
At home, though, the fast-rising government apparatchik was still living under the thumb of his mother, chillingly played by Judi Dench. When her devoted son, forced through a speech exercise to enunciate his words clearly, declares that he does not enjoy dancing with women, Anna Marie Hoover reminds him about a dead childhood friend nicknamed "Daffy."
That was for his wacky behavior, Edgar suggests. No, Mother says, it was short for "Daffodil."
"I'd rather have a dead son than a Daffodil," she says through clenched teeth, and the dancing instruction begins.
Indeed, her son has already proposed to a Justice Department typist, Helen Gandy, after taking her to the Library of Congress and explaining the filing system. In the person of Naomi Watts, Gandy briskly turns him down, saying she is dedicated to her work, but accepts his offer to become his personal secretary.
While Watts is a welcome presence, this movie doesn't seem to know what to do with her. Gandy is a presence throughout "J. Edgar," but she's an inscrutable one, seldom expressing an emotion other than loyalty.
More significantly, Hoover meets tall, handsome, suave Clyde Tolson at a local watering hole. DiCaprio makes Hoover's shy excitement vivid as he woos the young man into the FBI.
For his part, former “Social Network” Winkelvoss twins Armie Hammer portrays Tolson as confident, chatty, solicitous and much more self-aware than his new admirer. One the best moments in the movie comes when Hoover, all business, asks Tolson to be his number two man.
"I need you, Clyde," DiCaprio says earnestly. "Do you understand what that means?"
Lighting up in a smile at once elated and wary, Hammer shows in a flash that he understands everything, including what Hoover is unable to admit to himself. They become great friends.