Masterfully embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar Hoover was the most powerful man in America as iconic, if paranoiac head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 50 years. Serving eight Presidents through three wars, he used evidence gained from surveillance to try to blackmail Roosevelt, Nixon, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, while shrewdly manipulating the media to support his ruthless pursuit of Communists and gangsters.
“No one freely shares power in Washington, D.C.,” he maintained. “Information is power.”
Dominated by his possessive mother, Annie (Judi Dench), intoning, “You’re destined for greatness,” ambitious Hoover methodically organized the Library of Congress cataloguing before he moved into law enforcement, where he founded the FBI, fighting fiercely to introduce fingerprinting and other scientific methodology, establishing his own set of professional policies and procedures. Crime-fighting was his passion; secrets were his weapons.
The most pivotal case in Hoover’s career was the abduction of celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby, which led to Congress making kidnapping a federal offense, as Hoover established a framework for collecting and testing forensic evidence from a crime scene and popularized the “G-Men” image.
A dapper, self-aggrandizing, megalomaniacal, right-wing ideologue, Hoover was also an isolated, emotionally repressed, sublimated homosexual whose small circle of trust included his devoted secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and dutiful, observant companion, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
It’s uncanny how Leonardo DiCaprio breathes life into unblinking, eccentric conviction, delivering an enigmatic, powerhouse performance while receiving terrific support from Judi Dench, Naomi Watts and especially Armie Hammer (“The Social Network”), great-grandson of industrialist/art collector/philanthropist Armand Hammer.
Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) has written a sensitive, nuanced screenplay, filled with flashbacks, which Clint Eastwood meticulously transforms into a riveting, eye-opening character study, covering Hoover’s career from the ‘Bolshevik’ invasions in 1919 through his death in 1972 at age 77 – speculating about the Machiavellian essence of his relationships. Yet Eastwood, like J. Edgar, never forges an emotional connection.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “J. Edgar” is an inscrutable, ambivalent 8 – with Leonardo DiCaprio emerging as a definite Oscar-contender.