In Clint Eastwood's new film, "J. Edgar," a 1930 movie theater audience makes its preference clear. Whereas J. Edgar Hoover's pre-movie promotion reel about G-men and the FBI draws impatient boos, a trailer for the upcoming James Cagney flick "The Public Enemy" inspires hoots and applause.
Though Hoover was exceptionally popular with the American public throughout his nearly four decade reign as FBI director, his opponents - the gangsters, the radicals, the Kennedys - have always been the chosen subjects of movies.
"J. Edgar," too, may not draw cheers, but it remains a riveting, noble attempt by Eastwood, now 81, to wrestle with big American questions, many of which have obvious relevance to today's politics. It's another largely fascinating, if disappointingly flawed chapter in Eastwood's fantastic late period.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays the emblematic, enigmatic FBI chief in Clint Eastwood’s biopic “J. Edgar.”
Warner Bros. photo via AP
"J. Edgar" is a biopic framed around Hoover (a thoroughly committed, engaging but ultimately still removed Leonardo DiCaprio) dictating his life story to various typists.
The ambitious script by Dustin Lance Black (who wrote the Harvey Milk biopic, "Milk") traces Hoover's early career as a Justice Department upstart and eager riser at the nascent Bureau of Investigation. It is pushed forward by the relentless, paranoid patter of the fast-talking Hoover (nicknamed "Speed").
From the start, Hoover is a meticulous, obsessive defender of what he conceives as America. He tries to make typist Helen Gandy (the wonderful if underused Naomi Watts) his wife, but when she declines, he makes her his lifelong, trusted secretary instead.
* "J. Edgar" stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench. Clint Eastwood directs. Rated R for brief strong language, its running time is 2:17. It opens Friday at Kaahumanu 6.
"Edgar, can you keep a secret?" asks Gandy, explaining her career goals. Somewhere, five decades of American politicians chortle.
Eastwood paints the post-World War I political climate by which Hoover was formed - the bombings and assassination attempts that would ignite his long "war against the Bolsheviks." The threat was not just paranoia, but fell far short of the "end of times" warnings still echoing today.
This mindset would lead the opinionated, racist Hoover to mistake other movements, such as civil rights, for extensions of communism.
Eastwood explores Hoover's increasing megalomania, his illegal surveillance, his secret files. But Eastwood also reminds us of Hoover's accomplishments.
Hoover built a centralized collection of fingerprints in Washington, and was an early advocate of forensics. He brought professionalism to FBI agents, but also presided over them like a dictator.
Still, the most affecting parts of "J. Edgar" are Hoover's two most important personal relationships: That with his mother (Judi Dench) and with his No. 2 and close friend, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who played "The Social Network's" Winklevoss twins.)
Hoover was an emphatic mama's boy, and Dench plays her as a kind of Lady Macbeth, fostering her son's repression. When a grown Hoover gets worked up and begins stuttering, she tells him, like she did when he was a child, to talk to himself in the mirror and "Be my little Speedy."
The exact nature of Hoover's relationship with Tolson isn't known. They ate together nearly every day and took vacations together, but the gay and cross-dressing rumors about Hoover aren't established.
In "J. Edgar," the relationship is entirely convincing. Hoover and Tolson (Hammer plays him as totally subservient) are inseparable partners, but their sexual desires appear to be unsatisfied. Black's interest in Hoover's story is that of a closeted gay man, as opposed to the outed Milk. DiCaprio and Hammer have an excellent chemistry, full of slight, homoerotic gestures.
The politics of the film will surely be debated, given that Eastwood, a moderate libertarian Republican, is sympathetic to Hoover. Another challenge is the weighty feel of a biopic: not enough time to fit a life, and too much material to find a narrative.
DiCaprio has no hesitation in the role, and he does a great deal to make "J. Edgar" compelling, especially as his character ages.
And, really, it's the experience of aging - a subject of many of Eastwood's recent films - that comes across best with "J. Edgar." The resonating images of Hoover are of a man increasingly and tragically out of step with time. Thankfully, it's been quite the opposite for Eastwood.