"You can't deny that he was a patriot, but at the same time his tactics were pretty deplorable," says actor Leonardo DiCaprio of J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial historical figure whom he portrays — over a 50-year span of his life — in director Clint Eastwood's recently released J. Edgar.
Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (in its various namesakes) for 48 years, J. Edgar Hoover is a man whose legacy is as tainted and tarnished by his abuses of power and heinous invasions of privacy as it is celebrated for his patriotic tenacity and commitment to preserving what he saw as the core values of the United States of America. Yet it's some of those very values of his that are so questionable. Sure, stopping bank robbers and other criminals can be chalked up as a plus — but staunch opposition to the Civil Rights Movement? "Hoover, I'm sure, felt that he was right in everything he did," says the 81-year-old Eastwood, "even the things we don't like about his character. Everybody always feels that they're right ... even if they're wrong.
"I had my own impressions growing up," Eastwood continues, "with Hoover as a heroic figure in the '30s, '40s, '50s and beyond. But this was all prior to the information age, so we didn't know about Hoover except for what you'd read in the papers." In other words, in 1944 the world was a bit too distracted with more pressing issues and lacking in the technological wherewithal to spend time dissecting leaked photos of the Director of the FBI wearing a woman's dress that may have popped up that day on TMZ. "It was fun to delve into a character that you'd heard about all your life but you never really knew," says Eastwood.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) describes this film as a tough one to research, explaining that, in reading all the various biographies written about J. Edgar over the years, one finds more contradiction than harmony when it comes to ideas about the man's life, as private and potentially peculiar as it was. Which means that some storytelling liberties were necessary in bringing this biopic to the screen.
As Eastwood explains, "Sure, a lot of things probably didn't happen exactly the way they happen in this film, but they're pretty close."
"He was a crock-pot of eccentricities!" exclaims DiCaprio. "To me you couldn't write a character like J. Edgar Hoover and have it be believable."
A demanding role to say the least, DiCaprio undergoes a gradual aging of 50-some years in the film. And he credits Eastwood's decision to shoot the majority of his fully-aged-Hoover material during the last two weeks of production with giving him the chance to prepare and grow a bit more naturally into the man's later years. Says DiCaprio, "The challenge for me was not just the prosthetic work and how to move like an older man, but more so how to have 50 years of experience in the work place and talk to a young Robert F. Kennedy as if he was some political upstart that didn't know what the hell he was talking about. Clint's style of direction is so catered for actors because he has almost this splinter cell unit of people on set. It's like an elite squadron of marines that fade away, and that third wall sort of disappears and you start to feel like you're actually submerged in reality and you're really there. And for doing difficult stuff like that it's incredibly helpful as an actor."
A man whose time in command remains a telling and potent reminder as to the corrupting potential of near-absolute power, the cast and crew of J. Edgar consider his story a timely and important one. DiCaprio credits screenwriter Dustin Lance Black for having said it best: "If we can better understand these people and their motivations, and how their ambition manifested itself into their politics, we can learn from them. We can learn from history." | RDW
J. Edgar is in theatres now