DVD Release Date: February 21, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: November 9, 2011 (limited); November 11, 2011 (wide)
Rating: R (for brief strong language)
Genre: Biopic/Drama
Run Time: 137 min.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Hamilton, Geoff Pierson, Brady Matthews, Gunner Wright, David A. Cooper, Josh Lucas

While probably a little too ambitious for a single film (a television mini-series would’ve been a better fit), Clint Eastwood’s latest take on history, J. Edgar, still covers plenty of fascinating terrain.

In addition to providing an intriguing portrait of its powerful and thoroughly complex namesake, the film is also a snapshot of the FBI’s rise to power since it was Hoover himself who led the organization for the better part of 50 years. And if that wasn’t already enough to tackle in less than two-and-a-half hours, well, J. Edgar also serves as the Cliff’s Notes for nearly half a century of American history and politics to boot.

Even in Eastwood’s mostly capable hands, it’s impossible to serve so many masters effectively, and his divided loyalties are probably why the film feels so uneven at times. Despite the screenplay’s tendency to gloss over details that warranted further explanation, J. Edgar is still an engaging depiction of a prickly, powerful man filled with all sorts of prejudice and contradiction.  

Like many prominent historical figures, J. Edgar Hoover’s (Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception) life is practically tailor-made for a biopic. A fiercely private man who leveraged everyone else’s dirty little secrets in the name of justice, especially those of high-ranking government officials, he’s really irony personified. And his purported double life is an intriguing yarn that’s woven throughout.

As hideous as his behavior is most of the time, he’s portrayed as a decidedly sympathetic monster, though. Rather than tell the story in stark black and white, Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) rely on various shades of gray. Not only do we see just how painfully shy and awkward he is on a date with a young woman (an underused Naomi Watts, Fair Game) he’s been charged to romance by his overbearing mother (Judi Dench, Jane Eyre), but when she senses that her son might not exactly play for that team anyway, she regularly exploits his deepest fears of being found out by telling him a story about how a “daffodil” committed suicide after his own secret came to light.