Clint Eastwood's 'J. Edgar,' Featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, Opens AFI Fest

J. Edgar film still Leonardo DiCaprio
Warner Bros.

The 25th annual AFI Fest got underway tonight at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood with the world premiere of Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, Warner Brothers' highly anticipated bio-pic of legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who is portrayed in the film by Leonardo DiCaprio.

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I flew out from New York (to be here for this week's festival and next week's Academy Governors Awards) and made it over to the theater -- in front of which the handprints and footprints of the Twilight stars were immortalized in cement earlier today -- just as the festivities were about to get under way. Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Harvey Weinstein, Quincy Jones, Brett Ratner, Hilary Swank (the star of Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby), and many other notables were in the audience. Eastwood, in his first-ever appearance at an AFI Fest, made a few remarks about the film. And then the lights went down.

When they came back up, my gut feeling was that I had just seen a very good film -- but not one that is a slam-dunk for a best picture nomination or anything else (though I would be pretty surprised if, at the very least, DiCaprio doesn't make it into the best actor field and the film's showy makeup work isn't recognized).

That is not intended as a denigration of J. Edgar, which is visually beautiful, intellectually stimulating, and just plain better than the vast majority of films that get made these days -- all a testament to 81-year-old Eastwood, who just keeps going. Instead, it is simply a reflection of what happens to most films that are built around largely unsympathetic historical figures like Hoover (who was reportedly -- and is portrayed in the film as -- a dark, cold, power-hungry, mean-spirited, self-hating man).

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Most of the time, these sorts of films provide meaty material for writers and actors, who tend to get nominated and sometimes even win for them, but they fail to inspire in voters the passion that is necessary for a best picture nomination, especially under the current voting system. For every film that serves as an exception to this "rule," like Patton (1970), there are dozens of others, like Nixon (1995) and The Last King of Scotland (2006), that support it.

Indeed, the respectful applause with which J. Edgar was met tonight was in stark contrast to the enthusiastic reception that has been afforded to some of this year's more upbeat contenders like The Artist and Midnight in Paris, with which it will have to compete in the best picture race. Are there many voters who will list J. Edgar as #1 on their preferential ballots? I have my doubts.

My guess is that DiCaprio will be the primary focus of their attention -- as he should be. He gives a performance of great nuance, portraying Hoover as a spry 24-year-old and a fading 77-year-old -- to say nothing of the 53 years in-between -- with equal aplomb. His physical transformation is remarkable (and not only because of the outstanding makeup work), as are the ways in which he conveys his character's mental hardening as he witnesses, learns, and fears more and more. (I couldn't help but think about Michael Shannon's character in Boardwalk Empire, another no-nonsense G-man who leads a secret life and hates himself for doing so.)

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Will the 36-year-old three-time nominee finally get to make that trip to the podium? Maybe -- but look out for Brad Pitt (Moneyball), who has twice been nominated never before won; George Clooney (The Descendants), who has never before won in the lead category; and Jean Dujardin (The Artist), who has never even been in the discussion before but should not be underestimated. Talk about a race!