(NEW YORK) -- The website Funny or Die.com released a parody this week of Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar, the crux of which is DiCaprio’s apparent desire to win an Oscar by appearing in a biopic and adopting a strange accent. As far as parodies go, it’s pretty hilarious. When you see the movie, however, you’ll quickly realize that regardless of Leo’s Oscar desires, he delivers a great performance.
J. Edgar Hoover is easily one of the most compelling figures in American history. There’s no denying he changed the way we solve crimes and catch criminals, and his reign over the FBI is unprecedented for a government agency and will never again be seen. The fact that Hoover himself is the reason his tenure will never be repeated makes his story even more compelling.
The story of J. Edgar unfolds through his own words as an elder Hoover, in the midst of serving his eighth and final president (Nixon), dictates the history of the FBI for a memoir. We’re then taken back in time to a fascinating rendering of a tumultuous moment in American history seldom discussed: namely, a series of bombings by radicals against public officials that led to the 1919 Palmer Raids. It is, according to the film, the pivotal moment in 24-year-old J. Edgar’s professional career. Young Hoover is fastidious and filled with ideas, most notably his desire to use science -- such as fingerprint evidence -- to hunt down criminals.
With every ounce of genius, though, comes a pound of paranoia. Hoover begins collecting files on public figures, essentially blackmailing his enemies, including presidents. The man’s private life was equally controversial, and that’s where Armie Hammer’s Clyde Tolson comes in.
It’s believed that Hoover and Tolson were lovers. Had this been public knowledge, it would have ruined Hoover and, perhaps, destroyed the FBI. Hammer was a revelation as the Winklevii in The Social Network and continues to impress here. The only weakness in his performance has nothing to do with him: his old-man makeup is disconcerting. Fortunately, Hammer’s sharp acting cuts through the obvious layers of latex.
While Tolson represented Hoover’s secrets, Helen Gandy protected them. Naomi Watts is unrecognizable as Hoover’s life-long secretary, and that’s impressive. The role seems to come as naturally to her as breathing. Watts continues to be one of film’s best actresses, and we hope one day the Academy recognizes her talents.
Director Clint Eastwood presents this portrait of Hoover using muted colors, dark lighting, tight spaces and closed doors. It’s an aesthetic, whether intentional or not, that creates a metaphorical cage -- or perhaps a very large closet -- for Hoover’s incredibly complex ego and personality. He is, for all intents and purposes, trapped in a prison he spent a lifetime building.
Artistically, J. Edgar is one of Eastwood’s best films. Legendary for his hands-off approach to directing, Eastwood trusts his actors to do their jobs, and that’s what DiCaprio does and then some. Once again acting against his type, he doesn’t just play ugly -- he becomes ugly. And tortured. And paranoid. And fantastic. Not since his work in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has DiCaprio so thoroughly disappeared into a character. His J. Edgar will haunt you for days.
Four-and-a-half out of five stars.
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