LOS ANGELES -- "J. Edgar" is a somber, enigmatic, darkly fascinating tale, and how could it be otherwise?
This brooding, shadow-drenched melodrama with strong political overtones examines the public and private lives of a strange, tortured man who had a phenomenal will to power. A man with the keenest instincts for manipulating the levers of government, he headed the omnipotent Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years. Though in theory he served eight presidents, in practice J. Edgar Hoover served only himself.
Starring an impressive Leonardo DiCaprio and crafted with Clint Eastwood's usual impeccable professionalism, "J. Edgar" gets its power from the way the director's traditional filmmaking style interacts with the revisionist thrust of Dustin Lance Black's script.
This film's J. Edgar is not the patriotic anti-Communist stalwart Hoover considered himself to be, but rather someone who only imagined he was the hero of the story, someone who went from outcast to oppressor by not hesitating to ride roughshod over and even blackmail whoever got in his way. Absolute power truly corrupted him absolutely. The overriding irony of this situation was that this man, as rigid and self-righteous as any of the Soviet commissars he feared and fought against, apparently had an unacknowledged private life that gives his story unexpected poignancy but would have made him a target of his own investigations had it been lived by someone else.
Shot in a Stygian gloom by veteran Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern, "J. Edgar" uses a news-behind-the-news structure reminiscent of "Citizen Kane" as it goes back and forth between Hoover's earliest days and the law unto himself he eventually became. Packed with information, the film does more than ask the Shakespearean question, "Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed, that he is grown so great?" It takes its two-hour, 17-minute length to show us in detail how it all came down.
In this "J. Edgar" benefits from the convincing acting of key cast members, including Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, the great man's confidential secretary, and Armie Hammer (the Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network") as Hoover's soul mate, Clyde Tolson. Most of all it benefits from DiCaprio, who spent hours on set being aged from 24 to 77, had almost 80 costume changes, and has the presence and force to make this American gargoyle believable.
It's the graying Hoover we meet first, dictating his somewhat suspect memoir to a series of young agent-stenographers because he feels that "it's time this generation learned my side of the story."
That story begins with a rarely examined event in American history, the 1919 Palmer raids against anarchists and other supposed radicals. In response to a series of bombings, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in effect took the law into his own hands, collaborating with the 24-year-old Hoover and the newly formed FBI to attack people for their ideas without evidence of crimes. It's the first of several examples we see in the film of what can happen when unchecked governmental power falls into the hands of the ruthless and the self-righteous, when influential people believe, as Hoover did, that "sometimes you need to bend the rules a little to keep our country safe."
According to the film, Hoover's character was influenced as much by his part in the raids as it was by the personality of Annie Hoover (Judi Dench), his dragon-lady mother. Dominant, smothering and oddly reminiscent of Tony Perkins' mother in "Psycho," Mrs. Hoover's homophobic insistence that "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil" had a stifling effect on the other major relationship in J. Edgar's life, his close friendship with FBI colleague Tolson.
A smooth fashion plate with the manners and attitude of the born courtier, the handsome Tolson catches Hoover's eye and before you can say "constant companion," the two men are having lunch together every day and even taking joint vacations.
The exact nature of this relationship, as well as Hoover's sexuality -- did he wear dresses, as has been claimed, or didn't he? -- have been the source of near-endless speculation. At this point in time, the truth is unknowable. Black's persuasive script posits that the men definitely had strong feelings for each other but that Hoover, at least, could not even acknowledge, let alone act on them because of his mother's inflexible attitude. This was literally the love that dared not speak its name.
"J. Edgar" carefully takes us through the stages of Hoover's career, including his realizing the publicity value of going toe-to-toe with gangsters and the way he used the distinctly outre circumstances of the kidnapping of Charles Lindberg's infant son to advance the bureau's status.
We see the good things about Hoover, for instance his championing of scientific crime-scene analysis and the use of fingerprints, but we see much more of the dark pathological side, his mania for collecting incriminating evidence on people such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., whom he considered the most dangerous man in America.
"We must never forget our history," Hoover was fond of saying. "We must never lower our guard." But "J. Edgar" is best taken as a warning that in focusing too heavily on outside subversive agitators, we run the risk of ignoring the depredations of people very much like Hoover himself.
Rating: R for brief strong language.
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.