The founder of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), is depicted in this biopic as being tough, proper, paranoid, a control freak, and a fashionisto. Director Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) have a lot to play around with because of how complex an individual Hoover is. He ran both an investigative agency and a publicity machine. He was rumored to be gay, but he gathered evidence on anyone who was socially "promiscous" whether it was supplying communist propaganda or campaigning for civil rights. After all, the man served under six presidents, so there is a lot to showcase and that might be the film's chief problem. John Dillinger, the Lindbergh baby, Martin Luther King Jr... that is a lot of ground to cover.
The film cuts back and forth a lot, from the 20s on and then to the 60s. I don't feel like there is much of an even ratio of time spent in certain decades than the other. This isn't a problem, I just don't think this style of storytelling benefits a director like Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has tackled a wide variety of material in the past ten years, but his films love to boil and build until they explode towards the end. The kind of characters he seems attracted to are very thoughtful and meditative until they are forced to act. The lead roles (some of which he has played such as in Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino) often feature characters who are trying to stick to an ideal of what they should represent versus how they personally feel.
Hoover is a character who is trying to maintain a public image. He has a great deal of shame because of what he is personally hiding compared to how he represents himself in public. This can make Hoover hard to identify with, but the character is very interesting because of the lengthy life he lived. Black's script has some great parts and others that are severly lacking because they seem to be included to be sure we have an accurate depiction of what Hoover accomplished in his life. Despite how fascinating the characters are, the inclusion of such lengthy expository moments makes the film emotionally distant. Most of the emotive moments seem to generate from the relationship between Hoover and his male assistant, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
DiCaprio is very subtle and yet persuasive in his role and Hammer plays off of all of that so very well. The film also stars Naomi Watts as Hoover's secretary and Judi Dench as his mother. They feel slightly underused, especially Watts after her "first date" scene and Dench seems there only to play the stern mother. Still, the acting is absolutely phenomenal. Each performance is nuanced and feels naturalistic as time goes on. The production value of the film is fantastic in how it captures each decade and the makeup is also superb (although the actors seem to keep using their regular voices, thus making it weird to see a sixty year old have Hammer, Watts, and DiCaprio's youthful vocals).
I can't stress how big of a gap there is between these fantastic performances and the film's script. Then again, the script isn't that bad. Black seems to have good intentions because he is really trying to paint the picture of a truly interesting individual. If anything, Black exceeds his wishes into the point of making the film feel about a half hour too long. It'll be interesting to see what reception this film gets this awards season. Will it be admired for its production and acting or be ignored because of how tired it feels to experience? I feel that audiences are going to be asking themselves the same question.