Even with all the surprises that have characterized Clint Eastwood’s twilight film years, with their crepuscular tales of good and evil, the tenderness of the love story in “J. Edgar” comes as a shock. Anchored by a forceful, vulnerable Leonardo DiCaprio, who lays bare J. Edgar Hoover’s humanity, despite the odds and an impasto of old-coot movie makeup, this latest jolt from Mr. Eastwood is a look back at a man divided and of the ties that bind private bodies with public politics and policies. With sympathy — for the individual, not his deeds — it portrays a 20th-century titan who, with secrets and bullets, a will to power and the self-promotional skills of a true star, built a citadel of information in which he burrowed deep.
To find the man hiding in plain sight, Mr. Eastwood, working from a smart script by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), takes a dynamic approach to history (even as it speaks to contemporary times), primarily by toggling between Hoover’s early and later years, his personal and public lives, while the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The film opens in the early 1960s with a shot of the Justice Department building, the original home of the bureau, establishing the location, as well as the idea that this is also the story of an institution. As Hoover croaks in the voice-over (“Communism is not a political party — it is a disease”), the scene shifts inside, where the camera scans the death mask he kept of John Dillinger, former Public Enemy No. 1, and then stops on Hoover’s pale face: a sagging facade.
Old, stooped, balding, his countenance as gray as his suit, Hoover enters while in the midst of dictating his memoirs to the first of several young agents (Ed Westwick) who appear intermittently, typing the version of history that he feeds them and that is dramatized in flashback. The earliest episode involves the 1919 bombing of the home of the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson), a cataclysmic event that — accompanied by terrified screams and a wide-eyed Hoover rushing to the conflagration — signals the birth of an anti-radical. Hoover, a former librarian, subsequently helps deport hundreds of real and suspected extremists; hires his lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and begins amassing secret files on possible and improbable enemies that, like a cancer, grow.
Without rushing — a slow hand, Mr. Eastwood likes to take his time inside a scene — the film efficiently condenses history, packing Hoover’s nearly 50 years with the bureau into 2 hours 17 minutes. By 1924, Hoover was its deputy; a few years later in real time, seemingly minutes in movie time, he meets Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network”). Tall and impeccably groomed, Tolson is a golden boy who, here at least, physically recalls the 1920s tennis star Bill Tilden and quickly becomes Hoover’s deputy and constant, longtime companion. The men meet in a bar, introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Hoover blusters through the easygoing introductions, his eyes darting away from the friendly newcomer literally looming over him.
Later, Tolson applies for a job at the F.B.I. and is eagerly hired by Hoover, inaugurating a bond that became the subject of titters but that Mr. Eastwood conveys matter-of-factly, without either condescension or sentimentality. Before long Tolson is helping Hoover buy his suits and straightening his collar, and the two are dining, vacationing and policing in lock step. Tolson becomes the moon over Hoover’s shoulder, a source of light in the shadows. Even the ashcan colors and chiaroscuro lighting brighten. In these scenes Mr. Hammer gives Tolson a teasing smile and the naked face of a man in love. Mr. DiCaprio, by contrast, beautifully puts across the idea that the sexually inexperienced Hoover, while enlivened by the friendship, may not have initially grasped the meaning of its depth of feeling.
Mr. Eastwood does, and it’s his handling of Hoover and Tolson’s relationship that, as much as the late-act revelation of the pathological extent of Hoover’s dissembling, lifts the film from the usual biopic blahs. Mr. Eastwood doesn’t just shift between Hoover’s past and present, his intimate life and popular persona, he also puts them into dialectic play, showing repeatedly how each informed the other. In one stunning sequence he cuts between anonymous F.B.I. agents surreptitiously bugging a bedroom (that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a resonant, haunting presence seen and heard elliptically and on TV) and Tolson and Hoover walking and then standing alone side by side in an elevator in a tight, depthless, frontally centered shot that makes it look as if they were lying together in bed.
Although Hoover and Tolson’s closeness was habitual grist for the gossip mill, the lack of concrete evidence about their relationship means that the film effectively outs them. Certainly a case for outing Hoover, especially, can be made, both because he was a public figure who, to some, was a monster and destroyer of lives, and because he was a possibly gay man who hounded homosexuals (and banned them from the F.B.I.). But this film doesn’t drag Hoover from the closet for salacious kicks or political payback: it shows the tragic personal and political fallout of the closet. And Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Black’s expansive view of human frailties means that it’s Hoover’s relationship with Tolson — and the foreboding it stirs up in Hoover’s watchful mother (Judi Dench) — that greatly humanizes him.
That humanization is at the center of the film, which, as the very title announces, is less the story of Hoover, the public institution, than of J. Edgar, the private man. It would take a mini-series to name every one of his victims and enemies, a veritable Who’s Who of 20th-century notables, and a book as fat as Curt Gentry’s biography “J. Edgar Hoover” to communicate the sweep of the man’s power and impact on history. In crucial, representative scenes, the film instead offers quick sketches of the more familiar Hoover — the top cop and hunter of men (always ready for his close-up); the presidential courtier and exploiter; the wily Washington strategist and survivor — who decade after decade fended off threats real and imagined, and foes like Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan).
The official take on Hoover, or rather on the F.B.I., his sepulchral home away from home, has been told before, including in Hoover-approved howlers like the studio flick “The F.B.I. Story” (1959). At once a fascinating psychological portrait and an act of Hollywood revisionism, “J. Edgar” doesn’t set out to fully right the record that Hoover distorted, at times with the help of studio executives (including those at Warner Brothers, which is also releasing this film). Instead, Mr. Eastwood explores the inner life of a lonely man whose fortress was also his stage. From there, surrounded by a few trusted souls, he played out a fiction in which he was as heroic as a James Cagney G-man (despite a life with a mother Norman Bates would recognize), but finally as weak, compromised and human as those whose lives he helped crush.
“J. Edgar” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Gun violence and language.
Opens on Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Dustin Lance Black; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Mr. Eastwood; production design by James J. Murakami; costumes by Deborah Hopper; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Brian Grazer and Robert Lorenz; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
WITH: Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Naomi Watts (Helen Gandy), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson), Josh Lucas (Charles Lindbergh), Jeffrey Donovan (Robert F. Kennedy), Geoff Pierson (A. Mitchell Palmer), Judi Dench (Annie Hoover) and Ed Westwick (Agent Smith).