“Stars bring a lot of memories along with them, and those memories can sometimes, at least in the first ten minutes of the movie, corrupt the story.”

The above quote is from Steven Spielberg (Peter Biskend’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls) who, in more than 40 years in the business, has cast recognizable faces in virtually all of his features, most of them introduced in the first ten minutes. Presumably these words are best relegated to the ‘do as I say and not as I do’ basket, but nevertheless he makes a valid point about how the baggage famous actors bring with them carries a potentially detrimental effect on the reality of any film they inhabit.

A good director aspires to mitigate that effect by shepherding and seducing the audience, tricking viewers into forgetting they’re watching faces plucked from other universes. Things get a little more tangled if a famous actor plays a famous person, the performer competing against their portrayal, when one wishes to be seen and the other does not.

It was wise for director Clint Eastwood to open J Edgar with an almost unrecognizable Leonard DiCaprio before flashbacks reveal the man we see in magazines and on posters, just as it was wise for Phyllida Lloyd to do the same for Meryl Streep (playing Margaret Thatcher) in Iron Lady (2011). DiCaprio is beautifully made up to remove his perennial boyishness and resemble not just a grown, ageing man but something bearing more than a vague likeness to his character — notorious long-serving FBI chief J Edgar Hoover.

But whereas Iron Lady, stuffed with speculative exposition concerning Thatcher’s late-age mental deterioration, largely avoided exploring tangents one generally expects from a good political biopic (motivations, rise to power, private peccadilloes, varying shades of truth and legacy, etcetera) Eastwood, 81, serves them up on a platter, with dollops of gossipy talking points as side dishes, including a sort-of homosexual relationship and a pinch of good ol’ fashioned cross-dressing.

Hoover was the first director of the bureau, stayed in the job for 48 years and served under eight presidents, passing away in 1972. The film spans his days as a young man alarmed by anti-government extremists to his ascension up the ladder of political power and, finally, to “that old bastard’s” last moments.

Eastwood shoots in his trademark under-lit style, the cast shrouded in mists of darkness, which affords the film a dusty enigmatic air. DiCaprio’s performance feasts on the self-righteous and pugnacious fat of Hoover’s character but skilfully sidesteps caricature whenever the trap appears to be set. Naomi Watts is fine in a modest role as his rusted-on secretary and quasi love interest, the screenplay (by Milk writer Dustin Lance Black) justifying early on her character being written out of a central part. Hoover’s mother, played by Judi Dench, hovers on the peripheries, lobbying in the occasional slice of conservative motherly wisdom, i.e. “I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.”

Eastwood took a gamble hiring Armie Hammer to place Hoover’s right hand man Clyde Tolson, and it didn’t quite pay off. The tall, clean-cut, traditionally handsome Hammer, a portrait above a chesterfield waiting to happen, is young and relatively inexperienced, particularly in contrast to his co-star. He beamed the smug Harvard grin in The Social Network (2010), in which he played the Winklevoss twins (with the aid of digital trickery, both of them) but his emotional range wasn’t tested.

In J Edgar Hammer has a tendency to overplay his emotions. In Clyde’s younger years he’s exceedingly confident and bold — that Harvard grin again — and in his older years a little too wobbly and fragile, and the juxtaposition jars. DiCaprio, who would have spent months practicing that voice, triangulating his brow and slamming his fists, imagining being what the film’s posters dubiously claim was “the most powerful person in the world” carries the show.

A fascinating turning point occurs when Hoover is confronted by a colleague with accusations that the stories in his manuscript are self-congratulatory exaggerations and flat-out lies, lily very much gilded. These are the same stories the film dramatizes, meaning the audience too have been suckered, a deliberate maneuver to cast a cloud over the screenplay’s veracity. This coy twist insulates Eastwood against allegations of inaccuracy, shielding him from the cries of biographers who might argue J Ed never wore womens clothes, thankyouverymuch, and tsk-tsk Hollywood for its propensity to sensationalize.

J Edgar’s plot structure drifts between time frames, wafting down the corridors of its protag’s past, segueing airily between narrative points of reference. Eastwood uses this floaty structure to imply that chapters and segmentation mean little in the context of a person’s whirlwhind existence, particularly a life that took on the gravity and implications of Hoover’s, whose influence on politics in America and by turn the world is indisputable. The down side is the story, not the camera, can feel a little out of focus. But regardless, after a couple of missteps — Invictus (2010) and Hereafter (2010) — the prolific veteran filmmaker, whose first feature as a director was released the same year as Spielberg’s career kick-starter Duel (1971), enters his 80s with a rich and sophisticated biopic.

J Edgar’s Australian theatrical release date: January 26, 2012.