11/07/2011 09:07 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2012

Movie Review: J. Edgar

Let's see: Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar," which opens in limited release Wednesday (11/9/11) before going wider on Friday, features a fully committed performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a sly one by Armie Hammer as Hoover assistant Clyde Tolson, a poisonous mother portrayal by Judi Dench - and...what?

As the credits rolled at the end of the screening I saw, my reaction was more, "Huh?" than anything else. Mostly, I wondered: Who will want to see this movie?

There are a solid two generations of people to whom J. Edgar Hoover is simply a name in a history book - if they're aware of him at all. Eastwood's film, from a script by Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black, wants to place Hoover in a historical context - as a pioneer in modern scientific crime-fighting and creator of the modern FBI. But it also wants to show his feet of clay, portraying him at times as a vain, even vainglorious bureaucrat who responded to criticism by putting the critics on his personal enemies list.

But Black's script, bouncing back and forth in time between the early and mid-1960s and the 1920s and 1930s, can't quite figure out what story it's telling. Does it want to address Hoover's accomplishments - such as bringing criminal investigation into the 20th century with the use of fingerprints and scientific laboratory analysis? Or does it want to expose Hoover as a headline-hunting glory hog who pimped out the image of the crime-busting G-Man to radio serials, movies and even cereal-box promotions?

Black tries to touch on all of this and more, but the things he chooses to focus on seem, well, not random, but wrong-headed in their priorities. An exceptional amount of time is spent on the hunt for Charles Lindbergh's kidnapped son and the trial of the kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann - to no particular end, other than to note that Hoover helped pass laws making kidnapping a federal offense.

In the film's present - the 1960s - there is a lot of time spent with Hoover bullying Robert F. Kennedy and plotting the downfall of Martin Luther King Jr., whom he considered a dangerous radical. He practically smacks his lips while listening to tapes of a King tryst in a hotel with a woman who was not King's wife. And Hoover is shattered when his attempts to blackmail King prove fruitless.

Yet Eastwood can't quite bring himself to brand Hoover a dangerous bully, who used his position to trample the civil rights of those he considered a threat to the country. Nor, for that matter, does he delve too deeply into Hoover's sexuality, which is depicted here as a highly conflicted and closeted homosexuality.

This review continues on my website.