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MOVIE REVIEW: Eastwood plays it safe with controversial Hoover in 'J. Edgar'

(L-r) ARMIE HAMMER as Clyde Tolson and LEONARDO DiCAPRIO as J. Edgar Hoover in Warner Bros. Picturesi drama "J. EDGAR," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. 

(L-r) ARMIE HAMMER as Clyde Tolson and LEONARDO DiCAPRIO as J. Edgar Hoover in Warner Bros. Picturesi drama "J. EDGAR," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. 

J. EDGAR

(PG-13)

2 and a half stars

Considering he is easily one of the most influential and significant people of the 20th century and has been dead for close to 40 years, it's perplexing as to why a film about J. Edgar Hoover (as a lead character) took this long to be made.

A conflicted man if there ever was one, Hoover was the first director of the FBI and held that post for nearly a half century. The FBI building in Washington is named after him. He kept his job while under the supervision of eight U.S. presidents; most of whom wanted him, if not dead, at least forcibly retired -- yet that never happened. If Shakespeare were still alive, Hoover would be the best thing since Richard III.

Like any icon (and make no mistake, Hoover was an icon of the highest order), tackling a bio-flick about him is a nasty double-edged sword and could explain why no one has wanted to get near it until now.

Years ago, Clint Eastwood faced a similar challenge with his adaption of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and steered clear with the same type of sanitized, kid-glove approach. He acknowledged but largely ignored the gigantic elephant in the room and the film suffered because of his gentlemanly, overtly genteel, mindset.

There is little to no doubt -- but no absolute proof -- that Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a cross-dressing, closeted homosexual and while Eastwood addresses both issues in "J. Edgar," he does so grudgingly. He knows that ignoring this major aspect of Hoover would be inexcusable in a film of this magnitude, but it's clear by the almost fleeting time devoted to Hoover's closet, it is something he wished he hadn't had to address it at all. The truly odd aspect of this is that the screenplay was written by Dustin Lance Black, a gay man who won an Oscar for "Milk," the bio-flick about assassinated gay politician Harvey Milk.

In what some will view as either a sellout or a reward of sorts to Black for keeping the "gay thing" to a minimum, the filmmakers blame all of Hoover's personal problems on latent mommy issues. His mother (Judi Dench) was a domineering homophobe who never permitted him to let go of the apron strings and insisted he live with her until her death -- which he did.

With all due respect to Eastwood, this movie should have been directed by Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese or possibly Oliver Stone; a filmmaker not afraid of lascivious details who could attack the subject matter with brio and bite.

When handling the highlights of Hoover's professional life, Eastwood fares better, but not by much. Events taking place in post World War I -- namely the first American "Red" scare -- planted the seeds of paranoia and distrust that shortly transformed Hoover into a seasoned blackmailer; a skill he honed into an art form and one that would forever secure his job.

With relative economy and wry humor, Eastwood and Black examine Hoover's ruthless nature by showing just how he gets three U.S. presidents (FDR, JFK and Nixon) to leave him be despite their collective hate for him. Hoover tries unsuccessfully to get to Martin Luther King Jr. to bend to his wishes and is crushed beyond repair when he realizes King won't cave in.

Through all of the emotional tentativeness, back-and-forth time shifts, questionable make-up choices and often clunky dialogue, DiCaprio emerges unscathed and delivers what is arguably the most realized performance of his career. He pulls off the ultra-rare feat of eclipsing the material without showboating or resorting as he sometimes does to hysterical histrionics. An Oscar nomination for DiCaprio appears to be a lock, but declaring him as the front-runner for the actual prize this early in the awards season is probably premature. The same goes for Dench.

The filmmakers -- in a way neither probably wanted -- have also pulled off a rare feat. They took one of the most controversial and tragic figures of the last 100 years -- and one beyond ripe for a movie portrayal -- and remained ambivalent about him for the duration. Rarely has such potentially explosive material been executed with such wan indifference. (Warner Bros.)