Clint Eastwood's new film "J. Edgar" tells the sprawling life story of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for almost 50 years. Told in flashbacks, the film is sometimes confusing and feels more like a rough draft than a proper sketch, according to Seattle Times film critic Moira Macdonald in this...

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Clint Eastwood’s biopic “J. Edgar” wanders all over the 20th century and back again; it’s a sprawling life story that seems both made for the movies and too big for them. J. Edgar Hoover was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (and its predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation) for almost 50 years, beginning in the 1920s and continuing until his death in 1972. His career was filled with the kinds of public events that inspire their own movies — the Lindbergh baby kidnapping; the death of President John F. Kennedy — while his personal life was kept under wraps. He never married, lived with his mother until her death, employed the same personal secretary for almost his entire career and seemed to have no interests outside of his hawklike devotion to his work.

As portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, he was an exceedingly odd fellow: stodgy even as a young man, overly formal (he called his secretary “Miss Gandy” every day of their working life; she, when no one else was present, called him “Edgar”), paranoid, mumbly, and prone to getting even with people by instructing his staff, “I want you to start a file on him!” Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) adds another layer, a theory long presented by some historians and disputed by others: Hoover was a closeted gay man, in love with his longtime second-in-command at the Bureau, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The men were, unquestionably, devoted friends; no one knows if they were more than that, as Hoover and Tolson never told.

Black and Eastwood don’t put the movie’s emphasis on Hoover’s personal life until its final act; rather, the movie is a meandering trip through his career, with a sort of greatest-hits approach. Its timeline is often confusing — Black frames it all with an older Hoover dictating his memoirs, resulting in a series of flashbacks not always in chronological order, and for which years are rarely given — and Eastwood’s attention to detail isn’t at its usual level. Why, for example, is DiCaprio’s old-age makeup so convincing (though he does look distractingly like Jack Nicholson) and Hammer’s so artificial-looking? Why are so many of the interiors almost comically dark? Why is the secretary, played by Naomi Watts, given so little screen time?

Though “J. Edgar” definitely isn’t Eastwood’s best, as in all of the director’s films there are wonderful moments for the actors: Hammer, his voice smooth as new velvet as he advises Hoover on fashion; Josh Lucas, wonderfully relaxed as he strides through the film as Charles Lindbergh; DiCaprio, demonstrating the young Hoover’s awkward eagerness on a date with Watts’ character at the Library of Congress (he’s thrilled by the organization of the card catalog); and standing alone, not letting himself tremble, as Tolson walks out the door after a fight. But “J. Edgar” too often feels like the rough draft of the great movie it could have been; a character sketch, not quite a portrait.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com