Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception
, Blood Diamond
) stars as J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 50 years. Hoover was feared, admired, reviled and revered, a man who could distort the truth as easily as he upheld it. His methods were at once ruthless and heroic, with the admiration of the world his most coveted prize. But behind closed doors, he held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life. Oscar Winner Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino
, Million Dollar Baby
) directs an all-star cast including Naomi Watts (21 Grams
), Armie Hammer (The Social Network
) and Oscar Winner Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love
) as Hoover’s overprotective mother.
Expert direction by Clint Eastwood and a tour de force by Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role help make J. Edgar
a fascinating, if somewhat less than thoroughly compelling, portrait of one of the most complex and conflicted Americans of the 20th century. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's narrative moves freely among various stages of J. Edgar Hoover's life and career, framed by scenes in which the aging FBI director dictates his memoirs to an admiring young agent. Major events include Hoover's crusade against supposed Communists; his involvement in the capture and trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was convicted of kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh's infant son; the creation of the infamous "confidential" files he kept on his many enemies; his relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), Hoover's lifelong friend, companion, and conscience (while Tolson was clearly gay, the much-discussed issue of Hoover's homosexuality is suggested but not explicit); and his vendetta against Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. The point of view is not entirely unsympathetic, but while it's clear that Hoover was responsible for several crime-fighting innovations, it's equally apparent that this coarse, insecure, socially inept man remained forever under the sway of his overbearing mother (Judi Dench), was only too happy to break the law when it suited him, hectored and scolded others with self-righteous vigor, and lied shamelessly about his own heroic exploits. In view of all that, it's easy to understand why Hoover's legacy is controversial, to say the least.
DiCaprio does a fine job of staying in character (including his East Coast accent), and if his makeup as an older man isn't completely convincing, the dark palette employed by cinematographer Tom Stern throughout the movie (even a daytime scene at a racetrack finds most of the spectators' faces shadowed by their hat brims) makes that much less apparent. As for Eastwood, he has long since established himself as a master of his craft, and although the lengthy J. Edgar has its tedious moments, this is an engaging, admirable film. And while Hoover was almost totally humorless, the movie isn't; it's unlikely that the scene in which Hoover receives the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination while secretly listening to an audiotape of King having illicit sex really happened, but it sure is entertaining. --Sam Graham