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'J. Edgar'

G-Man
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A tale of a vengeful egomaniac with covert desires is handled with intelligence by Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Spanning a tumultuous half- century of American history, J. Edgar is a mightily ambitious work that provokes assorted reactions: fascination, revulsion, pity, grudging respect and disdain for the man's tactics and prejudices. It also inspires admiration for how deftly the filmmakers treat conjectural aspects of the most intimate scenes, as well as impatience with the script's tendency to tell rather than show.

This surprising collaboration between director Clint Eastwood and Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tackles its trickiest challenges with good sense while serving up a simmeringly caustic view of its subject's behavior. These days, agenda counts for so much, and the pressing, if not only, point of interest for some will be to see how far the film goes in ascribing all manner of nefarious and hypocritical behavior to this most public symbol of moral rectitude, patriotic thinking and law abidance. For some, nothing short of unrestrained evisceration will do.

But pulling Hoover's pants down and sticking him on a skewer would not be Eastwood's way. Rather, he applies the measured intelligence he has brought to bear on any number of his films to analyze the unjust application of justice, the suitable response to violence and the temptation to flaunt the rules. Eastwood often gravitates to characters inclined to extreme unilateral behavior, and Hoover's ability to run the FBI as his personal fiefdom for nearly a half-century qualifies him as a prime example.

Unfortunately, Hoover led a life so narrow and unchanging, both emotionally and ideologically, as to prevent Black from making him a character available to dramatic revelation. His stature notwithstanding, Hoover can't even be considered an alluringly complicated antihero along the lines of Charles Foster Kane, to reference a character in a film to which J. Edgar has unmissable structural, historical and temperamental parallels. Hoover was a fastidious, self-righteous public tough guy who lived with his mother until she died and might or might not have been intimately involved with his longtime partner and professional second-in-command, Clyde Tolson, portrayed in excellent if rather glamorized fashion by Armie Hammer. The truth about their domestic relationship is probably forever unknowable (very few people are as famous for the sex they probably didn't have as others are for the sex they actually had), but the way the homoerotic undertones and impulses are handled is one of the best things about the film. The emotional dynamics feel entirely credible, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Hammer excel during the exchanges of innuendo, covert desire and recriminations.

Built around Hoover dictating his memoir to a series of noticeably good-looking, well-groomed young men, the script hopscotches through history. As drama, J. Edgar gets off to a choppy start as it rapidly introduces a host of characters, with Hoover's voiceover attempting to clarify what's going on. DiCaprio's changing looks through the decades also take some getting used to; his old-age makeup seems jarring at first, but one gradually looks beyond it, and the actor is actually most effective in the middle- and late-age scenes. It's a vigorous, capable performance, one that carries the film and breathes life into the old tradition of plain, real folk achieving retroactive allure by being played by attractive stars. Still, the characterization remains external, one of solid technique blocked from going deep.

The various time periods are well represented in James J. Murakami's production design and Deborah Hopper's costumes, and cinematographer Tom Stern has elegantly desaturated the visuals in predominantly blue tones. Eastwood again has composed his own score, but this time his spare and restrained piano backing feels insufficient to the task as the picture could have been helpfully propelled by a vigorous, full-bodied, old-school Hollywood score.

Venue AFI Film Festival, Los Angeles
Release date Nov. 9 (Warner Bros.)
Cast Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer
Director Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black
Producers Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Robert Lorenz
Rated R, 136 minutes