There’s mostly good news about Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” despite the mixed trade reviews from late last week. Eastwood’s biopic, written by Dustin Lance Black, is fine filmmaking. Hoover was a cipher, a man who left behind a lot of secrets and mysteries. Was he gay? Was Clyde Tolson his lover? Eastwood describes his movie as a love story, and he’s right. No, it’s not “Reds.” And it’s not even “Brokeback Mountain.” Very little is consummated. But Leonardo DiCaprio really hits a home run. His performance holds up the whole film, and he carries it without flinching from beginning to end. It’s an Oscar turn, but maybe something more than that. It’s DiCaprio growing and stretching as an actor.
Leo’s going to surprise a lot of people. He veers away from impersonation, and goes deeper. Alternating between the young Edgar and old, DiCaprio is confident with each step. The rest of the cast is superb. Judi Dench has a full on supporting role as Hoover’s mother, sure to earn her another nomination. Armie Hammer is very good, again, as Clyde Tolson. Naomi Watts is just lovely as Hoover’s lifelong secretary.
The film is full of welcome cameos, from Lea Thompson as Ginger Rogers’ mother to Dermot Mulroney, Geoff Pierson, Josh Hamilton, Jeffrey Donovan (from Eastwood’s “Changeling,” excellent as Robert Kennedy), Stephen Root, Ed Westwick (from “Gossip Girl”) and so on. It’s as if Eastwood combed through the Players Guide and picked the best team he could find.
And the gay love story? It’s extremely chaste. You saw more in “Will & Grace.” What Eastwood does is simply suggest the obvious: the two men were inseparable. On the other hand, “J. Edgar” is really about the abuse of power at its highest level. Hoover never once shies from suggesting that he investigate an enemy or start a file on a foe. He’s J.R. Ewing writ large. Only Richard Nixon could truly appreciate his Machiavellian ways.
I can’t imagine the review chaos on Friday, when “J. Edgar” finally is seen. DiCaprio fans are going to drive this film, and they can rejoice. Their boy from “Titanic,” who never fails to try new things, has really risen to the occasion this time.
And Eastwood: “J. Edgar” sometimes hums like “Unforgiven.” It has an operatic quality–maybe horse opera–as Hoover sees himself as a gunslinger come to clean up the town. Eastwood, when he’s on, and has a good script, makes movie move. The pieces fall into place.