Phenomenal acting graces this rich, insightful, intelligent portrait of an icon of the 20th century. Enigmatic, insular, brilliant, J. Edgar Hoover (1895- 1972). Ambition to rival “Caesar”, a tortured soul encased in designer suits, perfect appearances masking a bifurcated psyche. Leonardo DiCaprio is “J. Edgar”; his archival, resounding portrayal from youth to old age deserves an Oscar. At 36, DiCaprio is solidly residing in a “league of his own”; his every movement, facial expression, vocal inflection capture the uniqueness and individuality of a man who changed law enforcement, pulling it from the “dark ages” through the embryonic terrors of communism (“a disease”); slaying of “mob” figures throughout the thirties; the horrific kidnapping and murder of the Lindberg baby. DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood have produced with inimitable accuracy the life of a man, a legend, mythically driven, who altered history.
J. Edgar believed the vision his mother ( live together until her death; a fine performance by Judi Dench) forecasts with “Cassandra” sagacity a destiny ordained by the gods; he had a brother who does not factor into the film. His youth was informed by bombings, the Red Scare (“Palmer Raids”, 1919-20); he saw communism and its lethal specter lurking beneath anyone with leftist sentiments, eventually giving birth to the egregious diatribes of “ McCarthyism” ; he stripped and scorched the American Communist Party reducing it to a paltry few determined devotees; Emma Goldman (1869-1940) a loquacious and gifted orator, fostering birth control and free love (“as if love is anything but free”), revokes her citizenship, forcing her deportation to Russia, the country of her birth; he instituted the fingerprinting process; with the aid of his secretary “Miss Gandy” ( a quiet, dignified performance by Naomi Watts) he compiles millions of composites’ on anyone he suspects of leftist or any untoward behavior (these files have never surfaced). With all the strength of his intellect he believes that communism is a threat to the American way of life; his paranoia is grounded in experience and for almost fifty years served him well.
In 1924, twenty-nine years old, he becomes Director of the Bureau of Investigation (coined the F.B.I. in 1931). He meets Clyde Tolson (1900-1975) (Armie Hammer, should receive an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor) and their fate is sealed. Focusing on their “friendship”, the movie shimmers at the platinum level; two men born in a time when homosexuality is shunned, treated as a perverse illness, defined as “daffodils” (Edgar’s mother tells him she rather have a dead son, than a “daffodils”); tortured, hiding behind a facade of civility, they spend every working (Tolson is Assistant Director), dining, vacationing minute, comfortably complementing each other, residing in separate domiciles, but entrenched, entwined souls. Ultimately “J. Edgar” is a sad tale of unrequited, forbidden love; a love story told with the mastery of a twenty-first century filmmaker’s clarity, hindsight, without an once of sentimentality, these men, their foibles bared, share with humanity the spectrum of emotions; pain, loss, loneliness, love. Eastwood and DiCaprio unveil a tragic titian with attributes we see in ourselves. This film enlivens, softens John Edgar Hoover’s legacy; his triumphs more meaningful, his flaws less repugnant because of his monumental personal sacrifice.