After playing Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” (2004), Leonardo DiCaprio brings to life another American legend in “J. Edgar.” With the help of a dialect coach and a “movement specialist,” DiCaprio portrays the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his forty-eight-year tenure. As J. Edgar Hoover in his later years, he looks like Orson Welles playing the title character of “Citizen Kane” at a comparable age. Clint Eastwood directs an empathetic screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, who uses a device from his 2008 biopic “Milk”: Harvey Milk narrated his political career as San Francisco’s first gay Supervisor by dictating his memoir “in the event of my death by assassination”; “J. Edgar” has similar scenes where the legacy-minded Director recounts episodes in his career to a succession of FBI writers. Hoover, however, is exposed as fabricating most of his G-Man heroics. As for his suppressed sexuality, Black and Eastwood neither recruit Hoover into a gay federal hall of fame, nor pillory him for hypocrisy. The filmmakers do not exploit choice historical details like the FBI field office inquiry into the Cleveland woman who gossiped to her bridge club that Hoover was a “homo,” an incident reportedly documented in an FBI file. Hoover’s unprecedented program to investigate “sex deviates” as subversives is not cited, despite the easy irony. Shot in a steely blue light, “J. Edgar” frames its subject in his relationships with his mother (Judi Dench), secretary (Naomi Watts) and his intimate and associate director (Armie Hammer). “I don’t like to dance, especially with women,” Hoover shares. Discreetly speculative, this sincere biopic cannot quite make sense of his paranoid patriotism, sexual orientation, ploys to glorify his agency through Hollywood, and tactical invasions of privacy for political leverage. With Ken Howard, Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney. 137m. (Bill Stamets)
“J. Edgar” opens Wednesday.