What Shaped ‘J.Edgar’? DiCaprio, Eastwood Discuss Historic Figure at the Center of Their Latest Film

I had a fascinating interview Friday in Los Angeles with Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Their new movie, “J. Edgar,” which tells the controversial story of the life of the man who built the FBI and ruled over it for almost half a century, comes out next week. Eastwood directed; DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover.

Credit: Getty Images

I’ll be honest. This was not a movie I was particularly keen on seeing (though I’ll see pretty much anything Clint Eastwood directs). Like a lot of Americans, I’ve long believed J. Edgar Hoover abused his enormous power in ways that threatened the very nation he was so keen on protecting. Presidents feared him — largely because he blackmailed them — and he persecuted political dissidents and civil-rights activists in gross violation of our most basic American ideals. He was, to me, a dangerous man who possessed far too much power for far too long. Healthy democracies shouldn’t have Hoovers.

But I was enthralled by the story of his life, as it was told in this film. I found myself, despite myself, feeling genuine pity for Hoover, and at the end, tears came. That is something I’m not sure I’m happy about: I wept for J. Edgar Hoover. My Adlai Stevenson Democratic parents are shaking their heads somewhere in Heaven.

Eastwood and DiCaprio told me that their film isn’t a political movie; they don’t take sides in the debate over Hoover. They wanted to get at the man: What drove him? What shaped him? Why did he become “J. Edgar?”

“He always did what he thought was right for our country,” DiCaprio told me.

And that surprised me. Clint Eastwood is supposed to be the Republican here, I thought, and Leo the liberal.

But one thing that makes DiCaprio the superb actor he has become is empathy. He clearly works hard prepping for a role, seeking to understand the characters he plays, to see the world from their perspective. He “gets” Hoover. And he should get an Oscar nomination for it.

Eastwood told me he grew up with the image of a heroic J. Edgar Hoover.

“He was the country’s top cop,” he said. “I admired him.”

But he added, “We didn’t know all the facts.”

In this movie, he lays out the facts without harsh judgment or showy politics. It’s just a great yarn.

As for the long-rumored gay relationship between Hoover and FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson – the movie shows us what it might have been like for two men who clearly loved each other in an era where that kind of love and trust between men was different.

“It’s about love between men,” Eastwood said. Not men in love.

It was pretty cool, I must admit, to spend some time with two Hollywood icons as they release what is a major film. I asked if their iconic status ever caused problems working together.

“Naw,” Eastwood said. “I’d just slap him upside the head in the morning.”

Go see “J. Edgar.”

Watch Terry Moran’s full interview with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood on “ Nightline,” Nov. 7 at 11:35 p.m. ET.