The flashback structure and the monotone voiceover narration combine with many darkly lit scenes to make for a plodding, unexciting film that episodically traces Hoover's life from 1919 through 1972. The best scene is the first one, the bombing of attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer's home, because of the impact it has on a young Hoover. But a man with a desk job doesn't provide thrills, though the film's classic movie clips and archival news footage are nicely integrated. In addition, the meticulously constructed office sets create a strong sense of place.
While Eastwood wisely doesn't sensationalize or exploit rumors of Hoover's cross dressing and homosexuality, the film is thoughtful to a fault, lacking in suspense. For example, Hoover rails against Martin Luther King, Jr. receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and surreptitiously sends a letter meant to intimidate King into declining. After King does accept the Prize shown on television, J. Edgar just turns off the TV—poof, tension dissipated. We move on.
Notably, J. Edgar has more than a few parallels to Citizen Kane. There's an egomaniac at its center fixated obsessively on his stern mother, one very present for Hoover. There's an adamant refusal to accept criticism plus a warped moral compass. The plot structure also resonates with similarities, especially the scene when Hoover moves into his office. The blocking of the scene with the movers twice walking through and interrupting Hoover's conversation mirrors Kane moving into his newspaper office.
Of course, the flashback route to explore a major figure is familiar. In the case of Hoover, several agents listen to and record Hoover's recollections providing the viewer a nicely ironic distance. Credit goes to Leonardo DiCaprio who captures Hoover's subtle changes over decades, even under heavy makeup. Credit also the always-amazing Judi Dench as the mother, Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover's devoted friend, and Naomi Watts as the faithful secretary. So J. Edgar is a mixed bag with meritorious and disappointing elements. At area theaters.