“J. Edgar” (2011), dir. Clint Eastwood
Leonardo DiCaprio, the preeminent actor of the under-40 generation, is stunning in Eastwood’s biopic about the most famous (and important) man in the history of the F.B.I.
DiCaprio of course plays the man himself, J. Edgar Hoover, who we follow from his earliest days at the Bureau until the day he dies. Hoover’s innovations, like bringing fingerprinting and guns to the Bureau, are astonishing from today’s perspective. Armie Hammer inhabits Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s lifeling colleague and lover. Their brutally constricted relationship is one of the more captivating movie love affairs of recent years.
Eastwood and DiCaprio have created a man who we can appreciate, even respect, all the while maintaining an appropriate level of disgust. Writer Dustin Lance Black and Eastwood want us to see that what he did for the F.B.I. was both amazing and terrible. They succeed. The way DiCaprio plays him, it makes me think vaguely of Gary Oldman as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. He is the wretched, driven man with genius and grave flaws, loved and hated with equal fervor. The kind of man who makes for a great story.
DiCaprio disappears underneath thick makeup, a gravely, subtle accent and a moderate stoop that all but obliterates the pretty boy from Titanic. Leo is far beyond the other under-40 actors in Hollywood, largely because he has no fear, but even more so because he seems to be insatiably interested in interesting characters.
The historical figures and events that are shown are solidly done and provide the backdrop for the real story, which is Hoover’s struggles with himself, primarily received from a domineering mother and a paralyzing fear of his own homosexuality. What I find most impressive is that when Hoover dies, I do not pity him. But I do not feel that he was a bad man. There was no final judgement rendered in the script or by Eastwood.