Opening the files

Clint Eastwood directs unflinching bio-pic of long-time FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar “Speed” Hoover.

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar “Speed” Hoover.

J. Edgar
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench and Armie Hammer. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Cinemark 14. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Early in his rise to power, the youthful J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes a liking to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), a bright and very focused young lady who has just arrived in the Department of Justice secretarial pool. Very soon after that, the besmitten Hoover (aka Johnnie, aka “Speed”) proposes to her.

She turns him down, saying she’s devoted to work and not to marriage. Hardly missing a beat, he makes a second proposal: She will become his private secretary. She accepts and stays in that role for the rest of their respective careers.

That proposal scene, with its deflection of romance and desire into professional duty and devotion, proves emblematic for the whole of this enigmatically intimate character study. Written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and directed by Clint Eastwood, it ventures into the labyrinthine life and character of a historical figure who was at once highly visible and perplexingly remote.

Black’s brilliantly nuanced screenplay traces Hoover’s ascent to power as the founder and promoter of the FBI and its dramatic expansion from semi-orphaned government bureau to major law-enforcement agency and on to being a political force feared by more than one president. But the real drama here is in the private relationships of this seemingly very public man.

Miss Gandy figures crucially in all that, as does Hoover’s weirdly domineering mother (Judi Dench). But the crucial relationship is also the most widely known and speculated about. Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), Hoover’s “right-hand man” at the F.B.I., was also his constant companion right to the end.

The film’s portrayal of the Hoover-Tolson relationship is sensitive and frank without resorting to sensationalism or caricature. As a composite portrait of sublimated desire and redirected erotic energies, it is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Those quietly redirected energies figure into nearly every aspect of the characterizations here, and the mosaic structure of the story—which intertwines fragments from markedly separate phases of Hoover’s career—sets up a lively framework for exploration of the paradoxical entanglements of Hoover’s emotional life.

Eastwood and DiCaprio are of course the marquee names, but part of what is remarkable about this picture is the absence of star turns. Director and cast alike seem committed above all to the substance of Black’s screenplay, and that seems essential to its potent mixture of nuanced psychology and elegiac reflectiveness.

The production has visual and aural echoes of Citizen Kane, and Dench’s daintily menacing mother recalls similar figures from the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I’m guessing that these cinephilic details serve as a way of grounding the picture in the “classical cinema” of the period in which Hoover trumpeted the bureau by insinuating himself into the history of the movies.