Leonardo DiCaprio has given many fine performances, but he has often seemed trapped in a certain preternatural matinee-idol youthfulness. Whether in a brooding period piece like Gangs of New York or a pop head-game like Inception, he inevitably comes off as lean and lithe and eager, with that movie-star-as-lion-cub face. I thought that quality really hampered him in The Aviator, where he lacked even a trace of Howard Hughes' rugged gravitas; he seemed like a boy playing a man. So I was skeptical of how well he would do in the role of that stocky, ruthless bulldog J. Edgar Hoover, the most famous director in many ways, the inventor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But in Clint Eastwood's emotionally reticent yet absorbing J. Edgar, DiCaprio does more than disappear behind steely glasses and prosthetic old-age makeup. He transforms himself, in a feat of acting, from the inside out.
The first thing you notice about DiCaprio's John Edgar Hoover is that he speaks in one of those jarringly proper early-20th-century Brahmin accents. It takes a bit of getting used to, but DiCaprio makes the dialect work, and it keys us to Hoover's rather rigid interior life. Even when he's young, Edgar, as he's known to those closest to him, is starchy and furrowed, with eyebrows scrunched down low (he looks a bit like the Dick Tracy villain Flattop). DiCaprio gives him a gleam of suspicion and a stately, formal body language that will harden, over time, into a combative waddle. Written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), the movie cuts back and forth between the '20s and '30s, when Hoover built the FBI and planted it in the popular imagination, and the early '60s, when his methods began to congeal into something paranoid and deluded. The crosscutting, frankly, is a bit much; the film never quite finds a present tense. Yet Black's script is densely detailed and fascinating. Eastwood, forsaking his deliberate rhythms for something speedier and wordier, turns J. Edgar into a dramatic essay about how the law and repression, heroism and corruption, fused in Hoover.
It's in 1919 that a 24-year-old Hoover first glimpses what he sees as the basic threat to American life: bomb-planting Communist agitators. As the film presents it, he may be right about the dangers of anarchy. But the subversives he's driven to crack down on also offend something fundamental in his nature. He's not just devoted to law and order. He craves control. From the outset, he has an epic plan: to make the methods of Sherlock Holmes bureaucratic. He collects forensic evidence (at this point, the authorities throw away the majority of crime-scene clues), hiring oddball experts like a man who knows everything about grains of wood. And he dreams of a centralized database devoted to the bold new science of fingerprinting.
He's inventing modern law enforcement, and he has triumphs, like hunting down the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh's baby. Yet there's a hidden madness to Hoover's method. He still lives with his mother (Judi Dench), and his devotion to her has a touch of Norman Bates. On a date with the comely Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), he shows off the card-catalog system he created for the Library of Congress. Is it any wonder that she becomes not his lover but his secretary? And when Hoover interviews a strapping prospective agent named Clyde Tolson, sweat trembles on his upper lip. He may be trying to rein in more than Communism.
The closest the movie comes to having an emotional center is Hoover's relationship with Tolson (played with soft sympathy by The Social Network's Armie Hammer), who becomes his friend, right-hand man, and dinner companion. As the film presents it, the two experience a love that can't be acted upon, that can't even speak its name. That's Hoover's tragedy but it is also, in J. Edgar, his pathology. His obsession with secrecy, with using illegal wiretaps to keep private files on politicians (like JFK) for the implicit threat of blackmailing them, emerges out of his hidden sense of shame. Over time, Hoover's enemies shift: from the lefties of the '20s to the gangsters of the '30s and, finally, to the social-protest leaders of the '60s like Martin Luther King Jr., whom he sees as an enemy of the state. Hoover never changes. Instead, he blinds himself to how America changes. Yet his angry paranoia isn't exactly something that you can identify with. I was held by J. Edgar, but it's a movie like the man at its center with a buried heart. B