DIRECTED BY Clint Eastwood
STARS Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts
No one could possibly have fathomed that someone as handsome as Leonardo DiCaprio and someone as homely as Ernest Borgnine would ever play the same character, but the actors indeed share the same screen DNA by both having portrayed J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial Federal Bureau of Investigation director and one of the most powerful figures of the 20th century.
Borgnine is just one of the many actors to have essayed the role in past productions (mostly on television), but it's clear that DiCaprio's turn at-bat will be the new measuring stick, mainly for being at the center of Clint Eastwood's major new film, J. Edgar. DiCaprio's performance is interesting, respectable, measured, unfussy and just a touch dry, qualities he shares with the ambitious picture surrounding him. It's always hard to encapsulate an entire life in one running time, but Eastwood and scripter Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for penning the excellent Milk) give it a shot — make that scattershot.
Saddled with a worthless framing device in which an elderly Hoover recounts his career for the biographers, the film moves back and forth through different eras to show Hoover's start at the Bureau of Investigation in 1919 (the "Federal" was added in 1935) right up through his death in 1972. Many of the watermarks surrounding Hoover and his G-Men are included, albeit accorded different measures of importance: The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby is given ample screen time, as is the Bureau's pursuit of notorious 1930s gangsters. But his persecution of radicals and civil rights groups — his real legacy, as far as many people are concerned — never truly takes center stage (Martin Luther King is mentioned, but hardly a whisper is uttered about the Black Panthers), and several career blunders are sidestepped in order to present a fair and balanced portrait. But the same problem affects J. Edgar that affected Oliver Stone's Nixon and W.: We aren't dealing with fair and balanced individuals, and the bending over backwards in an attempt to muster tears — even crocodile tears — is an unfortunate decision.
As for the personal aspects of Hoover's life, the rumors that he was a closeted homosexual who entered into a lifelong companionship with fellow FBI suit Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, less dynamic here than as The Social Network's Winklevii) were never substantiated, so Black is forced to make up his own history; the focus, for better or worse, renders this less a comprehensive biopic, more a Brokeback Bureau.