J EDGAR, the new Leonardo DiCaprio movie directed by Clint Eastwood, is impressive in two ways. It covers huge swaths of time, jumping back and forth from the beginning of J. Edgar Hoover's career to the end and several points between, trying to cram in everything, undaunted by the sheer scope of changes in the FBI and in the country between the 1930's and Hoover's death in 1972. More important (at least to me) is the detail and scope in the portrait of this contradictory man. Hoover was a genuine patriot who loved his country, a man of great courage, stubborn, independent, paranoid, and absolutely without any insight into himself or others. He was gay without (in the movie, anyway) acknowledging the fact to himself. His feelings for Clyde Tolson were tender, faithful, needy, and exploitative, without Hoover's understanding any of that. Ultimately he comes across as both sad and dangerous, but he also moves us. We watch as his youthful idealism hardens into rigidity, and in the final scene, as his aged body lies dead on the bedroom floor, the structure of the movie brings close to us what he was in the beginning.
Not many actors could pull all that off, but DiCaprio can. This is an Oscar-worthy performance.
My only real disappointment with the movie is that it does -- as it must, unless it had been a six-hour miniseries -- leave out so much. The anarchist bomb-throwing of the twenties and thirties is here, as are the "hero bank robbers"and the Lindbergh kidnapping that earned the FBI the right to carry weapons, but later eras are skipped through too quickly. The McCarthy witch-hunts of the 50's and the Vietnam-War FBI files on protesters are both given short shrift.
Still, this is an absorbing and subtle film. It's also -- astonishing in itself, considering the subject -- a fair one. Go see it.