What a strange man, that J. Edgar Hoover! And yet – for nearly 50 years – he managed to wield tremendous power and influence as the controversial head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. This biopic seeks to show us how, and why.

J. Edgar is good and interesting (no real surprise since it’s directed by Clint Eastwood), but it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the title role that really makes it worth seeing. Yes, that kid from Growing Pains (and Titanic of course) has matured into a mighty fine actor. He’s already shown his chops in movies like Catch Me if You Can, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Inception, etc.… but this movie showcases his talents in a much more subtle and nuanced way. He should (and probably will) at least be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. Who knows, he may even win this time.

DiCaprio is surrounded by some top-notch talent too. Naomi Watts plays Edgar’s longtime and ever-faithful secretary Helen Gandy; Armie Hammer is charming and sympathetic as his right-hand man and not-so-secret love interest, Clyde Tolson; and Dame Judi Dench plays his over-protective mother (who he lives with for a really long time). Their relationships with Edgar give the movie its emotional core.

Hoover is both hero and villain in J. Edgar. He’s obsessed with digging up and leveraging other people’s secrets, while harboring plenty of his own. He can creep you out one minute with his eavesdropping antics, and redeem himself the next as champion of things like fingerprinting and forensics to help fight crime. The FBI is his baby. He is consumed with protecting, promoting and growing the agency – which he led from its inception in 1935 until his death in 1977 – by whatever means necessary. And yes, that is DiCaprio playing J. Edgar across the decades.

It’s hard to know for sure just how close the movie comes to the truth about J. Edgar Hoover and his grip on power through eight presidents, three wars, and numerous high-profile cases from John Dillinger to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. But the curious in general, and modern American history buffs in particular, will have fun wondering. And I, for one, will never look at the FBI Headquarters, a.k.a. the Hoover Building in Washington, DC quite the same way ever again. What an odd duck.

J. Edgar feels (and is) a bit long at two hours and seventeen minutes. It’s rated R but I’m not sure why. Apparently, for “brief strong language”. Whatever. It’s PG-13 in my book.

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