Casting comes up short in 'Edgar'

Biopics are often greeted with charges of inaccuracy, since the genre invariably requires simplifications, distortions and even fabrications. It's worse yet when the subjects are universally famous … like, say, J. Edgar Hoover. But “J. Edgar” — directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) — has an advantage: Almost nothing is known for sure about Hoover's private life. The longtime FBI boss guarded his personal life closely, partly because he knew better than anyone how easy it is to invade someone's privacy.

The film stumbles within the first minute. No problem with hearing an old Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) dictating his memoirs to a young agent. But then we see Hoover, and suspension of disbelief goes out the window. DiCaprio's boyishness could defeat any “old man” makeup, and the makeup here isn't even very good. To be fair, it stops being jarring as the film progresses; unfortunately, the corresponding makeup on Armie Hammer (as Clyde Tolson, Hoover's closest associate) remains ineffective.

“J. Edgar” leaps around in time, intercutting three kinds of scenes — Hoover in present day (here meaning the early '70s), telling the story; flashbacks that (more or less) illustrate the voiceover narration; and flashbacks of his personal life, which go unnarrated, since Hoover would never have included them in a memoir. This third category is pure speculation and thus the juiciest and most intriguing.

We may never know for sure whether the rumors are true: that Hoover and Tolson — bachelors who essentially spent all their time together for 40 years — were lovers. The film suggests that they were in love … without ever being lovers. It's certainly easy to imagine someone as tightly wound as Hoover never being able to fully acknowledge his homosexuality to himself and his beloved, let alone to the public or the closeted men he bullied and blackmailed, wielding similar secrets as a weapon.

The filmmakers spend more time with the historical material but understandably seem more interested in the enigma of Hoover at home. Except for the fascinating section about the Lindbergh kidnapping and Hoover bringing science into police work, the rest of the public history is spotty — sort of a J. Edgar Hoover's Greatest Hits album. Despite the crime-busting stuff, the film is at heart a tragic romance.

Judi Dench, in her occasional scenes, is quietly chilling as the most important woman in his life — his mom. Naomi Watts has more screen time as Helen Gandy, Hoover's devoted secretary, but doesn't get to do much in a thinly written role. Hammer, hot off “The Social Network,” does get to do a lot and does it all terrifically, even from under his awful makeup.

DiCaprio convincingly shows us the inner Hoover, but not the outer one. That is, physically he's simply bad casting. It's not just his boyish face, but also his height: Tolson may well have called the short Hoover a “heartless little man,” but when Hammer flings the same words at DiCaprio, the incongruity is hard to ignore. The problem isn't as trivial as it may sound. Hoover was not only short; he was famously short, and his height was almost certainly a factor in making him who he was.

ANDY KLEIN is film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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