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J Edgar (15); W.E. (15)

Political biopics can conceal as much as they reveal, writes Ryan Gilbey.

J Edgar (15); W.E. (15)

dir: Clint Eastwood; dir: Madonna

I appear to have mislaid the memo announcing that January had been declared Right-Wing History Month. Only a few weeks ago, Meryl Streep played Margaret Thatcher in a moving and powerful series of advertisements on the sides of buses. (There may also have been a film attached, but don't quote me on that.) Now it is the turn of J Edgar Hoover, in J Edgar, and Wallis Simpson, in W.E., to compete against the former prime minister for the title of Most Misunderstood Reactionary. One of these new movies is directed by a grizzled, tough-talking macho icon, the other by Clint Eastwood.

In Eastwood's J Edgar, filmed in desaturated colours that suggest a face drained of blood by shock, the FBI head is played by Leonardo DiCaprio from beneath varying layers of old-man make-up. DiCaprio wears it well. "Prosthetics appliance fabricators" were involved, whatever they might be, but the baked-potato solidity of his face is already Hooveresque. From some angles, he could be a Minotaur. From others, he is the spit of Philip Seymour Hoffman, which makes you wonder why they didn't just cast Philip Seymour Hoffman, who would have required fewer prosthetics appliance fabricators.

DiCaprio is assured as the youthful Hoover, a prematurely fogeyish pen-pusher convinced that his card indexing system will impress that lovely Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) from the typing pool. He proposes marriage but she turns him down in favour of her career; DiCaprio lets us see the splendid glint of admiration and relief in Hoover's eye. Helen becomes his secretary, guardian of his notorious secret files on politicians and celebrities and the caretaker of his love for a puppyish deputy, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Hoover's terrifying mother, Anna Marie (Judi Dench), who also carries that Minotaur gene, is aghast: "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son." She edges him back into the closet, practically at gunpoint, just as he's trying to inch out.

J Edgar is a square meal, all meat and potatoes. Eastwood is good at those. The gravy, flavoursome and lubricating, comes from the script by Dustin Lance Black, the young writer of Milk. To gravy and milk add honey: Black must have reasoned that even DiCaprio's wounded quality would not make Hoover's bigotry palatable, so the man has been sweetened, his cruelty underplayed. Racism is reduced to the spiteful campaign to impugn Martin Luther King, or to a nice shot of Hoover greeting an African-American maid while decrying in voice-over "the unnatural divisions of mankind".

Black is more interested in the nature of the biopic than in Hoover himself. In structuring the movie rather fascinatingly as its subject's own self-serving account, Black might have had in mind Ron Shelton's film Cobb, in which the baseball player Ty Cobb watches a tribute reel to his achievements but can see only the shameful low-points not depicted on screen. If J Edgar isn't the whole truth, it is honest about the necessity of lying.

Madonna has not distinguished herself with W.E., which is technically only half a biopic. The story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), and how her relationship with Edward VIII (James D'Arcy) led to his abdication, is spliced together with the travails of the fictional Wally (Abbie Cornish), who becomes obsessed with the late duchess during an auction of her belongings in 1990s New York. Wallis leads a frenzied dance to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" in between popping up to dispense advice in Wally's bathroom mirror and answering questions ("Can we change our destiny?") on a park bench. This inspires Wally to have sex with a piano-playing security guard (Oscar Isaac) before visiting Mohamed Al Fayed (Haluk Bilginer), keeper of the duke and duchess's letters, to implore him to ponder what Wallis must've sacrificed for love. "Hmm, I never considered that," he says, tilting his head coquettishly.

The editing keeps each shot trimmed to under three seconds, while the camera soars and circles, and the screenplay dreams of wit. (Wallis: "You certainly know the way to a woman's heart." Edward: "I wasn't aiming that high.") The action moves at high speed from one location to another: Portofino, the Côte d'Azur, Cap d'Antibes. But not, curiously, Berchtesgaden.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?