Was Leonardo DiCaprio born to play J. Edgar Hoover?
I ask because J. Edgar, in which DiCaprio does exactly that for director Clint Eastwood, is the sort of Oscar-enticing, performance-driven artifact that is usually surrounded by such hyperbole. (“Ben Kingsley was born to play Gandhi!”) In other words, this is less a movie about the man and myth that was J. Edgar Hoover – or even the tumultuous period in American history he presided over – than it is about how convincing young DiCaprio is as the infamous head of the FBI, from his youth through his death at the age of 77.
So how is he? I suppose we should get that out of the way. DiCaprio has one crackerjack scene – in which he wills himself to overcome his stutter in the mirror – and a few cringe-inducing ones, especially those with Hoover’s mother. (They play like a Gothic version of The Manchurian Candidate, with Judi Dench in the Angela Lansbury role.) Meanwhile, the film’s handling of Hoover’s lifelong personal attachment to his male deputy (Armie Hammer) resembles an awkward AARP production of Brokeback Mountain. When it comes to exploring the emotional complexities of a closeted gay relationship, I think we’re all better off in the hands of a director like Ang Lee.
Otherwise, DiCaprio is as effective as possible while laboring under pounds of aging makeup. He is, by all accounts, OK.
That mostly goes for J. Edgar. Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern give the images a noble, executive gray (it’s just this side of black and white) as we whip through a few flash points in American history (John Dillinger, the Lindbergh baby, the rise of the counterculture). As the movie progresses, Hoover comes across as a brilliant patriot (he championed fingerprinting and cataloguing technology) whose obsession over national security gave way to a personal paranoia, in which everyone was conspiring to take down the United States (mostly by taking down Hoover). At its most interesting, the movie raises the specter of Hoover’s megalomania and forces us to consider where we might see it in this turbulent, defensive time. It’s “the end of days for this country,” Hoover’s predecessor says even before Hoover takes the reins. J. Edgar reminds us that it always seems to be “the end of days” when you’re the one on watch.
All of this is secondary, however, to the odd presence of DiCaprio, which is unfortunate. I realize the actor’s star power is likely the main reason the movie was made, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have been better in a story more suited to his talents. Or that a better movie about J. Edgar Hoover couldn’t have been made without him.