Director Clint Eastwood returns to seismic 20th century American history once more for this polished biopic of J Edgar Hoover, the man who practically created the FBI and presided over it for 48 years. Eastwood, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and star Leonardo DiCaprio don't shy away from Hoover's power-hungry ruthlessness - blackmailing politicians at all levels with muck-raking dossiers - nor speculation of his homosexuality and cross-dressing that adds further ambiguity to one of America's most secretive public figures.
After the head-scratching oddness of Hereafter, director Clint Eastwood seems on firmer ground with J. Edgar. Like Eastwood's most famous screen incarnation, Dirty Harry, Hoover was a committed lawman firmly on the right wing who didn't allow such trivialities as due process to get in the way of enforcing justice as he saw it.
Unfortunate then that the film ultimately emerges as a muddled dramatisation of Hoover's early career and its end, built around a framing device of the aged nosey parker recounting his glory years to junior G-men for a self-serving memoir.
Luckily, the film has DiCaprio to capture the drive, paranoia, charm, ambition, and twitchiness of the mercurial G-Man who hung out with movie stars, saw Commie conspiracies everywhere and was not above firing agents for receiving the public adoration he craved or printing the legend of his career rather than the facts.
Elsewhere, timelines shift confusingly (without the aid of onscreen prompts) from 1919 to the early 70s and the film adds nothing new to the revelation that the FBI kept tabs on Martin Luther King and JFK's indiscretions for blackmail purposes. Disappointingly, it skips World War II and the McCarthy Witch Hunts altogether.
Eastwood and writer Black are on surer footing in earlier scenes depicting the Bolshevik Bombings of 1919, when anarchists targeted key lawmakers and instilled in the young Hoover a rabid hatred of Communism that allowed him to justify the use of illegal wire-taps and strong-arm law enforcement.
The film also scores in covering Hoover's use of the infamous kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby to bring federal laws into place, the imperilled infant subplot recalling Clint's excellent Changeling.
Simmering below all this Department of Justice intrigue is the man's much debated sexuality, here speculated as homosexual but unconsummated with his lifelong right-hand man Clyde Tolson (The Social Network's Armie Hammer delivering fine work, at times behind very dodgy old age make-up).
DiCaprio is aided by a solid supporting cast including Judi Dench as Hoover's domineering mother (some cod Freudianism positing her death as the trigger for his cross-dressing), Josh Lucas as Lindbergh, and Naomi Watts as his selfless secretary, the reason for her lifelong devotion presumably left on the cutting room floor.
Uneven but not without interest and peppered with arresting moments, hopefully J. Edgar won't mark the last time Clint steps behind the camera.