In 1992 Jack Nicholson added putty and make-up to take on the lead role in HOFFA, a loose biography of one of our toughest union leaders. The film, though made with care and a script by David Mamet, was leaden, sort of like the fate that may have happened to the real HOFFA. So, it must have been with some trepidation that Clint Eastwood decided to helm J. EDGAR, the new biographical take on one of the most controversial American officials of modern times.
The real surprise of this film is that Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J.Edgar Hoover, a man who came to resemble an unhappy fire plug as he aged. Eastwood stages the highlights and backgrounds of Hoover's career, and he is careful to give his subject both steel and cowardice, strength and weakness. His technique is to link key moments in the Hoover story with other important events. Among these are his relationship with another steely battleship, his mother, played to perfection by Judi Dench, his handling of the Lindberg kidnapping case, his face-offs with every president he served, and, most importantly, his latent homosexuality with his chief assistant played by Armie Hammer.
This technique gives us some idea of how Hoover built the FBI into one of the most secretive and powerful agencies in U.S. history. He realized early on that if he was to be attacked, he should be ready with a stronger counter attack. In other words, keep a list and be sure it's full of incriminating dirt. His files ranged from the Kennedys to Barbara Streisand to Martin Luther King. No one of influence was exempt.
DiCaprio, first known for his intense juvenile roles in movies like WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE and later for his romantic idol qualities in TITANIC and ROMEO AND JULIET, gives his Hoover a gravitas that is more than the superb changes in make-up and weight. For the first time, we totally forget about the kid who yelled, "King of the world." Martin Scorsese used DiCaprio somewhat effectively as a young unionist in GANGS OF NEW YORK, but not particularly well as Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR. Frankly, his playing footsie with Kate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn was ludicrous. But in J.EDGAR, he earns new respect as an actor forging a memorable character, full of flaws, unattractive in appearance, shocking in his lack of judgment and morality, and yet somehow a man who earns our sympathy. The credit goes to both the star and his director the estimable Clint Eastwood, who knows what it means to change his persona.