Controversy surrounds public servants. Especially those who create, deal and manipulate the secrets of those in power. J Edgar Hoover, founding father of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), thus has to be one of the most controversial figures in American history, making the effort to film his life difficult.
Director Clint Eastwood surprisingly manages a sympathetic, non-judgmental portrait of one of 20th century`s most enigmatic figure, a man who not only guarded the secrets of America, but had many hidden inside his own closet.
The past, like Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) says in the film, guides the future. And so, Eastwood creates a montage of the past and present in an attempt to project a complete picture of a man, who was perhaps both good and bad in equal measure, a man whose greatness was matched only by his excesses and manipulations.
One of the greatest controversies about the life of Hoover was his sexual orientation. Thus any film would have had to take sides, and Eastwood does. Yet he does so with a gentle, kind touch, rather than an accusatory one that the world has made it out to be. After all we no longer live in a time when being gay was a crime.
The film does not shy away from proving him wrong either. He was perhaps wrong to hide inside a closet. But he was also wrong about many things, including Martin Luther King Jr., which the film shows. Yet, it does not judge his arm-twisting and blackmailing tactics that he used to ensure that FBI grew from strength to strength, to safeguard the security of his country.
A man of firm convictions, he is strong at all times. The only two times he is shown crying, are during his mother`s death and after meeting Richard Nixon. He has been able to manipulate presidents before him, but in Nixon he finally meets his match and he copiously sheds tears, knowing what a vile man Nixon is. Now that we can watch history from a distance, we see that he was right. And writer Dustin Lance Black uses this to absolve J. Edgar Hoover of his past sins.
DiCaprio excels in portraying this strong, frail man. Yet he falters while depicting the old age of this man and his excellent makeup fails to hide the tonality of his voice and movement that remains the same even when he ages. Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts do a much better job in this department.
Here is a man who witnessed some of the most momentous moments of the 20th century, of a technological age and an age when social justice came of age in the world. Yet here is also a man whose true contributions to these events will never be known. From his life, and from the film, we can only guess what they perhaps were.
Considering that the US emerged superpower in the same century, it would not be wrong to say that he, more than any single man in American history, affected its politics, and thus history in ways that even rulers can`t. He was indeed, perhaps, the most powerful man of the 20th century. And yet, he was also a man trapped in the expectations of his mother, hiding inside a closet. Whatever weaknesses the man might have had, but that `J. Edgar` manages to depict all of these, is the film`s greatest strength.