Back then, of course, he was a star on screen; nowadays, Eastwood is more likely to be found behind the camera, directing movies that are usually guaranteed Oscar fodder (he’s won directing Academy Awards for “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby”). He’s in town this day to present his latest directorial outing, “J. Edgar,” about founding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, to a crowd that will include no less than Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Department chief Leon Panetta, lots of FBI agents and scrums of Washington insiders who know the bureau down to the last brutalist square foot.
Can Clint Eastwood possibly be nervous?
“Nah,” he says in his signature quiet rasp, popping a piece of apple in his mouth. “If they like it, fine. I want them to be happy, but it’s not going to be Efrem Zimbalist Jr.”
Indeed “J. Edgar,” which opened Wednesday, will probably surprise Hoover’s fans and detractors alike, focusing less on the bureau director’s Machiavellian power plays and more on his psychology, especially as it played out with his constant personal and professional associate, Clyde Tolson.
Leonardo DiCaprio is already earning Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Hoover over five decades, a grueling physical performance that involved arduous prosthetic and cosmetic procedures. Despite what viewers may think they know about Hoover, the character who emerges from DiCaprio’s portrayal and Dustin Lance Black’s script will no doubt prove more enigmatic — even sympathetic — than they thought possible.
“He’s a mystery man,” Eastwood says of Hoover. “I still don’t have all the answers on him.”
With its depiction of a young J. Edgar Hoover fighting Bolshevik activity in 1919, an experience that fed what would later become an obsession with communism that bordered on paranoia, “J. Edgar” engages the timely issue of post-9/11 national security. And in its portrayal of the relationship between Hoover and Tolson (played by Armie Hammer), which Black and Eastwood depict as a passionate but chastelove affair, the film obliquely addresses the similarly contemporary issues of civil rights for gay citizens. Both messages dovetail with Eastwood’s personal politics, which he describes as libertarian.
“I think the message of ‘If we don’t pay attention to history we’re destined to repeat it’ is a little bit in the picture,” he says, comparing post-9/11 America to the Red Scare when Hoover began his career in the midst of anarchist bombing campaigns. “It doesn’t mean we have to be paranoid, but I think people have to be diligent. Because [America] is an enviable country in a lot of ways, and there’s a lot of people who always want to bring down the top dog.”