Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" may leave viewers wondering if the "B" in FBI stands for "Brokeback."
While the film doesn't exactly frontline J. Edgar Hoover's relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson, their alleged love affair figures crucially in its narrative and thematic conclusions; older Eastwood fans who liked the conservative "Dirty Harry" and "Gran Torino" are in for a surprise this time around.
The movie's treatment of this hot-button issue is discreet and intelligent; unfortunately, discretion and intelligence don't always make great cinema.
"J. Edgar" desperately wants to elevate its subject to the epic status of Ghandi or T. E. Lawrence; instead, it succeeds only in being a fairly decent movie that's too long and slow.
Leonardo DiCaprio turns in yet another flawless performance as the man who served as an FBI director for nearly five decades, pioneering such forensic standards as fingerprinting and crime-scene analysis.
The film's triumph is its measured stance toward this controversial figure, who - along with his still-unproven homosexuality - is reputed to have kept secret files on hundreds of citizens, including Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
I'm not qualified to judge the film's historical accuracy; but I can say that "J. Edgar" lays out the allegations about Hoover without feeling cheap or preachy; remarkably, it also refuses to vilify the man himself.
In other words, the film resolutely avoids doing to Hoover what Hoover supposedly did to others for years.
Instead, the crime-stopper comes across as committed and sometimes heroic - especially in the Lindbergh kidnapping; the rounded richness of the character is due largely to DiCaprio's focused intensity, and to the magnetism and humanity that have served him well even in playing men who've gone over the edge.
Many have ridiculed the make-up job that ages DiCaprio's Hoover from 24 to 77, but I found it convincing and impressive.
The work done on Naomi Watts (as Hoover's lifelong secretary) is less successful; and as for Armie Hammer, who plays Tolson, I have to agree with the Internet writer who opined that his older version looks like a burn victim about to continue melting right before our eyes.
In addition to fine work by these three leads, the film also features terrific support from Josh Lucas, Judi Dench, Zach Grenier and Jeffrey Donovan (spot-on as Robert Kennedy); yet it somehow never generates excitement.
The crime scenes are few and brief, and tension in the Hoover-Tolson relationship - as well as tension between what Hoover says and how he acts - develops far too late to give the narrative any backbone; its 137 minutes feel more like three hours.
On a side note, I could see no reason for the film's R rating; the language, violence and sexuality are far milder than many a PG-13 movie.
Saddest of all, I don't think "J. Edgar" is even good enough to net DiCaprio his long-deserved Oscar.
Oh, well- there's always next year's "Great Gatsby."