“J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, directed by Clint Eastwood, 137 minutes, rated R.
There’s a duality that Clint Eastwood explores in his direction of “J. Edgar.” First, he hands audiences the Oscar-bait historical biopic that many had expected, of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) reflecting on his legacy as an American hero – a term here that truly is in the eye of the beholder – having maintained his post as FBI director for 37 years.
Abstaining from any social life, young Hoover finds comfort in the arms of his mother (Judi Dench), an authoritative figure whom Hoover feeds off for motivation as well as friendship. There’s plenty of drive in Hoover, who pecks his way up the political ladder in Washington under the counsel of mother.
Then enters Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a gentleman who immediately catches Hoover’s eye. Their relationship begins as admiration, quickly evolves to friendship and eventually leads the two to a verboten attraction that neither can deny nor openly embrace. Under the fearless direction of Clint Eastwood, the real “J. Edgar” – a brazen and speculative portrait of one of America’s most controversial figures – begins.
The film spans from the Red Scare, where Hoover got a taste of the power that comes with political action, to his death in 1972, filling in the missing pieces of a man whose personal and professional life were shrouded in secrecy and rumors. In those gaps, Eastwood and Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black take the opportunity to build one of the more fascinating characters in film this year.
Here, the genius of Black’s writing comes through, from his precise structure to the skillful crescendo he builds leading up to a cathartic fight between Hoover and Tolson. There’s an intrepid spirit in Black’s writing that he refuses to stifle, as he takes on a subject still considered taboo in much of mainstream America. Years from now, he’ll be remembered as a pioneer for putting homosexual characters in cineplexes, not just art-house theaters.
The Hoover that Black and Eastwood create is opportunistic, and DiCaprio plays him that way. One moment he’s charming, the next he’s commanding. In his performance, though, DiCaprio captures a vulnerability that Hoover keeps hidden away from the public and himself, to maintain his image in the eyes of both. He’s a curious figure who values his privacy above all else, yet he’s willing to dig into the dirty laundry of others by unscrupulous and illegal means to gain political leverage and to get his kicks.
I can’t vouch for many of the facts presented in “J. Edgar,” and history buffs will be justified in calling them into question. But as a character study of a man so consumed by his own image that he suppresses his true nature, and whose passion for government secrets becomes outright voyeurism, “J. Edgar” is a piece of bold and intriguing cinema.
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