It is high time for another movie about the Lindbergh toddler, and who better to helm it than the man who directed Million Dollar Baby? Actually, Clint Eastwood's best qualification for re-creating the kidnapping case is Changeling, his flatly bizarre picture about Depression-era child slaughter. So the central section of J. Edgar, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as intelligence-hoarding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, becomes a labyrinthine whodunnit, with Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) hopping in his plane to follow false leads obtained through graveyard meetings, as Hoover leverages the publicity into more Bureau power and resources. Meanwhile, a tiny corpse rots in the woods behind a soon-to-be tarnished idol's house.
Had J. Edgar limited itself to that formative fiasco, it might have been a more cutting G-man picture than Michael Mann's exhausting Public Enemies. The actual film, spread over four decades and leached of any bright hues, is complex and brave, if at times almost comically misguided. Though filled with lurid material—Hoover intimidating Robert F. Kennedy with a tape recording of his brother screwing, Hoover trying on his mother's nightgowns and necklaces—it never lapses into exploitation. Such tastefulness is Eastwood's hallmark as a filmmaker, and also his great weakness: It makes him almost as humorless as the man he's chronicling. (DiCaprio's performance as a coal-eyed, fussy tyrant who sincerely loves his country is more nuanced than I anticipated, if also a little monotonous.) Eastwood's big miscalculation here is shooting nearly half the movie with Hoover and confidante Clyde Tolson (The Social Network's Armie Hammer) in liver-spotted old-age makeup, so that by the end it looks like crotchety Muppets Statler and Waldorf are heckling Martin Luther King Jr.
Despite this fundamental hitch (and a 137-minute aimlessness), J. Edgar has the virtue of being penned by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who takes the shamed relationship between Hoover and Tolson and finds a real love story. This eventually becomes the chief focus of J. Edgar, echoing the poignance of Harvey Milk's passion for Scott Smith. Black's empathy extends here to men not courageous enough to be lovers. He looks inside J. Edgar Hoover's closet and finds more than skeletons. R.
66 SEE IT: J. Edgar opens Friday at Fox Tower, Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport and Cinetopia Mill Plain.