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J. Edgar: New Film About America's Most Famous Cop

Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is electrifying

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover

Courtesy Warner Brothers Pictures

Armie Hammer (left) stars as Clyde Tolson with Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood's <i>J. Edgar</i>.

Director: Clint Eastwood
Rated: R, Runtime: 137 mins.
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench and Naomi Watts

En español  |  Yes, J. Edgar Hoover, played with profound commitment by Leonardo DiCaprio in Clint Eastwood’s new movie, does indeed slip on a dress, and he does find himself in a liplock with his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson. But under Eastwood’s miraculous direction, those often-rumored episodes from the FBI director’s life prove to be something less than scandalous. In the end, they seem more illustrative of a tormented man who could never quite figure out who he was — even as he tried to tell his fellow citizens what kind of people they ought to be.

J. Edgar was written by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for Milk, the film biography of the flamboyantly gay San Francisco city councilman. So you know those rumors about Hoover and Tolson as lovers will play a pivotal role here. But as in-your-face as Harvey Milk was, Black’s version of Hoover denies his homosexual tendencies, even to himself (for the record, it must be said, there are still lots of people — some of whom knew Hoover personally — who insist he was, if anything, essentially asexual).

With his customary steady hand, Eastwood ushers us through Hoover’s life story, utilizing the occasional time-jump to illustrate patterns in the man’s life (Hoover and Tolson’s first 1930s outing to Del Mar racetrack, for example, is juxtaposed with one of their last, as a pair of sickly old men). We touch on the highlights and low points of Hoover’s astonishing 37-year run as head of the FBI: His breakthrough with the Lindbergh baby kidnapping; his war on gangsters; his kind-of-sick surveillance of presidents (JFK), their wives (Eleanor Roosevelt) and controversial citizens (Martin Luther King Jr.). And always there’s DiCaprio’s uncanny take on Hoover: electrifying as a young man, obsessive in his middle years, haunted in old age. DeCaprio’s age-makeup progression by Sian Grigg is impressive (less so is the very plastic-looking work on Armie Hammer as Tolson — although at age 25 Hammer has more years to add than does 37-year-old DiCaprio).

Over the years, various factions have worked tirelessly to stir up hatred for Hoover. Eastwood isn’t having any of that. True, he paints a stark portrait of a vain bureaucrat who shamelessly took credit for other people’s accomplishments — but Eastwood also allows him the dignity of a man who truly loved his country and who genuinely believed that to preserve freedom it was sometimes necessary to circumvent the rights of those who would seek to topple American democracy. The film’s Hoover disdains commie-baiting Joe McCarthy as an opportunist, and as he watches King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on TV he visibly softens, seemingly astonished to discover that a man so different from him could also so demonstrably love his country.

Inescapably, J. Edgar’s realm is a man’s world, but Naomi Watts as Hoover’s ever-faithful secretary Helen Gandy manages to assert a certain amount of good feminine sense to the proceedings. She ages along with the rest of ’em, but as so often happens with actresses who age over the course of a film, the years are much kinder to her. If her makeup job here is any indicator, Watts will be one hot 75-year-old.