In Clint Eastwood's new film, "J. Edgar," a 1930 movie theater audience makes its preference clear. Whereas J. Edgar Hoover's pre-movie promotion reel about G-men and the FBI draws impatient boos, a trailer for the upcoming James Cagney flick "The Public Enemy" inspires hoots and applause.
Though Hoover was exceptionally popular with the American public throughout his nearly four-decade reign as FBI director, his opponents - the gangsters, the radicals, the Kennedys - always have been the chosen subjects of movies.
"J. Edgar," too, may not draw cheers, but it remains a riveting, noble attempt by Eastwood, now 81, to wrestle with big American questions, many of which have obvious relevance to today's politics. It's another largely fascinating, if disappointingly flawed chapter in Eastwood's fantastic late period.
"J. Edgar" is a biopic framed around Hoover (played by a thoroughly committed, engaging, but ultimately still removed Leonardo DiCaprio) dictating his life story to various typists. This is Hoover's story, told mainly through his perspective - and therefore a somewhat claustrophobic view of history.
Hoover is fully formed from the start: A meticulous, obsessive defender of America (or what he conceives as America). He tries to make typist Helen Gandy (the wonderful Naomi Watts, here underused, looking too bright for a somber tale) his wife, but when she declines, he makes her his lifelong, trusted secretary instead.
"Edgar, can you keep a secret?" Gandy, explaining her career goals, asks - and somewhere, five decades of American politicians chortle.
Eastwood explores Hoover's increasing megalomania, his illegal surveillance, his secret files. By the time Nixon is elected president, Hoover ironically recognizes him as a "menace" who will do anything to keep power. But Eastwood also reminds us of Hoover's accomplishments.
Still, the most affecting parts of "J. Edgar" are Hoover's two most important personal relationships: That with his mother (Judi Dench) and with his No. 2 and close friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who after being digitally doubled for "The Social Network" has been restored to a singular being).
Hoover and Tolson (Hammer plays him as totally subservient to Hoover) are inseparable partners, but their sexual desires - while not spelled out - appear to be unsatisfied. DiCaprio and Hammer have an excellent chemistry, full of slight, homoerotic gestures.
But just as the director so caringly switched sides of a World War II battlefield for "Letters from Iwo Jima" after "Flags of Our Fathers," Eastwood's "J. Edgar" shows just as much empathy for the power broker as "Changeling" did for the aggrieved.
In "J. Edgar," Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern fill the interiors with deep shadows and desaturated colors. That adds to the weighty feel of a biopic, which remains a problematic form for movies: not enough time to fit a life, and too much material to find a narrative. "J. Edgar" struggles to put forth a full picture of Hoover, a failure Dustin Lance Black's screenplay attempts to shroud in the contrived flashbacks.
DiCaprio has no hesitation about the biopic, and he does a great deal to make "J. Edgar" a compelling one. Thanks to Deborah Hopper's excellent costumes, he plays the character across decades (as Hammer and Watts do as well). He's most striking, almost Orson Welles-ish, as the elderly Hoover.
And, really, it's the experience of aging - a subject of many of Eastwood's recent films - that comes across best with "J. Edgar." The resonating images of Hoover are of a man increasingly and tragically out of step with time. Thankfully, it's been quite the opposite for Eastwood.