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J. Edgar

DiCaprio's Astonishing Performance as the FBI Chief

Nov. 15, 2011
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My first memory of J. Edgar Hoover comes from early childhood in the 1960s, overhearing a family conversation whose participants maintained that the president of the United States was afraid of this man and that the indomitable FBI director, in fact, had files on just about everyone. It turns out the accusation was probably correct. The FBI kept tabs on almost everyone who was anybody, and as for Hoover's legendary “Confidential and Private File,” containing the dirt on our nation's leaders, it seems to have disappeared with his death.

That most secret of all secrets is at the heart of director Clint Eastwood's fascinating account of Hoover's life, J. Edgar
. Eastwood's film depicts what many have suspected, showing how Hoover held his grip on the FBI through eight presidents by force of blackmail.

Much of the attention surrounding J. Edgar
has focused on Leonardo DiCaprio's astonishing performance in the title role. As young Hoover, he bicycles onto the historical stage as an obscure Justice Department agent, responding to the Bolshevik bomb blast that took out the attorney general's house in 1920 and left the Washington street covered with debris. He also steps into the more challenging and familiar face of the director in later years, physically transformed into the stocky, balding old man who resembled a medicated bulldog and could more plausibly be cast for someone of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's build. DiCaprio plays the younger Hoover as industrious, resourceful and courtly, the scion of decayed gentry; and as an old man he exudes the determined confidence of a car salesman who has half forgotten that he's pushing a lemon on his customers.

Eastwood must be credited for bravura filmmaking, shifting the story across the decades around the flashbacks of the elderly Hoover dictating his memoirs, yet much of what we see is the FBI chief as he would not want to be remembered—mendacious, manipulative and hungry for power yet content to remain half in shadow. Eastwood accomplishes this time travel without confusion or resorting to cliché, relying on the physical appearance of Hoover as the chronological marker. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Milk
) is apt and intriguing, leaving black holes of mystery amid the strong storyline and trimming history with a skilled hand to fit the demands of drama.

J. Edgar
raises the unending question of how to balance security with liberty, but the film is more concerned with Hoover's ability to turn crises into a career. The domestic terrorism of 1920 enabled Hoover to transform an obscure Justice Department office into the FBI; the John Dillinger crime wave accompanying the Great Depression turned Hoover into the gang-busting star of radio dramas and comic books; and the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby became an excuse to expand his power. Hoover played an important role in the growth of federal authority by crystallizing the concept of a national police and expanding the writ of U.S. statutes. After Hoover, almost anything can be turned into a federal crime.

Essential to J. Edgar
is the lifelong romantic pas de deux between Hoover and his confidential assistant, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a relationship hidden in plain sight before a public who assumed the director was married to his job of fighting criminals and Communists. Perhaps, the screenplay implies, Hoover was so terrified of exposure that he had to get the goods on everyone else?


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