‘J. Edgar’ (2011) review: Meeting the man behind the man

Leonardo DiCaprio, as J. Edgar Hoover, is shown in a scene from "J. Edgar." (Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Leonardo DiCaprio, as J. Edgar Hoover, is shown in a scene from “J. Edgar.” (Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

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‘J. Edgar’ epic, if slightly empty

In a story more about the man than the institution, “J. Edgar,” directed by Clint Eastwood, lays bare the humanity and inner turmoil of J. Edgar Hoover, a man who was thought not to know the meaning of the words. The tenderness of this love story — in a powerful, vulnerable performance by Leonardo DiCaprio — is a shock, if only because Eastwood is better known for his good-vs.-evil tales. And though some aspects of the film left you wanting (poor makeup, confusing flashbacks within flashbacks), you’ll leave the theater feeling sympathy for the man — a titan of such iron will and undeterred determination he held leverage over U.S. presidents — if not for his actions.

Utilizing a smart script from Dustin Black (“Milk”), Eastwood delves into two different times, one during Hoover’s early years, one during his later, one through his personal life, one through his public. The film opens in the early 1960s, during the wave of anti-Communism. You see a young J. Edgar (DiCaprio), aching to destroy what he considers to be a disease, not a political party. We’re then shown present-day Hoover (DiCaprio in some truly awful makeup), now director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations for four decades. Old and balding, he is dictating his memoirs to young agents, setting history as he sees fit. The first of these involves the 1919 bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, an event that triggers Hoover’s anti-radical sentiments. From here, he helps deports hundreds of real and suspected radicals; hires his lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and begins collecting secrets files on anyone he deems an enemy (real or imagined). The course of these events, though, can be disorientating, as flashbacks play within flashbacks, often to detrimental effect.

Compacting 50 years of history into two hours is no easy feat, but Eastwood does so with a slow and steady hand, taking us from Hoover as the bureau’s deputy in 1924 to, a few minutes later in movie time, him meeting Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, “The Social Network”). Tolson, a tall and stylish golden boy, quickly becomes Hoover’s deputy and longtime companion, which kick starts a bond that became the subject of gossips everywhere but one Eastwood conveys matter-of-factly. Before long Tolson is helping Hoover buy his suits and straightening his collar, and the two are dining and vacationing in lockstep. Here lies the beauty of the movie: the naked love portrayed by Tolson to Hoover, and the inexperienced splashed across Hoover’s face as he flounders with unexplored feelings.

Effectively, though, the film outs them, as there is no concrete evidence regarding Hoover’s sexuality, only speculation. To some, though, the outing would be justified, as Hoover went to great lengths to attacks homosexuals, even banning them from the F.B.I. But Eastwood doesn’t out him for insult or attack; it shows the torment the closet can inflict.

Don’t be misled, though: “J. Edgar” makes no attempt to set history right, a history Hoover himself distorted. Instead, it’s a more personal look into the inner life of a man who stood apart from the rest, a man who portrayed himself as larger than life, even if he was just as weak, needy and human as the rest of us.

Four secretive stars out of five.

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