A film review by Craig J. Koban November 17, 2011

J. EDGAR jjj

2011, R, 136 mins.


J. Edgar Hoover: Leonardo DiCaprio / Helen Gandy: Naomi Watts / Clyde Tolson: Armie Hammer / Charles Lindbergh: Josh Lucas / Annie Hoover: Judi Dench

Directed by Clint Eastwood / Written by Dustin Lance Black

He may have been a “daffodil” and a Norman Bates-esque momma’s boy, but J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most powerful men in the United States during his reign as the head of the FBI between 1924 and his death in 1972.   

For nearly 50 years the enigmatic G-man served under the likes of Presidents Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon and, it could easily be argued, that he had substantial dirt on some of them, so much so that many considered him the second most powerful – and feared – man in the country.  He was a crusader of law and order, a radical and commie hater, an unyieldingly moral and deeply patriotic figure,  and one of the most deep-seated figures of the 20th Century political landscape. 

Then, of course, there is the other Hoover: The man is one that, ironically enough, obsessed over having the secrets of others so that he could use them as leverage against them, but was simultaneously a deeply guarded and secretive person himself.  He never married, nor expressed much of a public preference for women in general.  He lived with his mother until the day she died.  He had a long-standing, lifelong relationship with a fellow bureau man, Clyde Tolson, who inherited Hoover’s estate when he died (when he eventually passed on had his grave placed beside Hoover’s).  Obviously, Hoover's ties with Tolson led many to speculate as to his sexual orientation: was he a homosexual man in deep denial and living a lie as a heterosexual man?  Infamous accusations of him being a cross dresser also dogged him, making his private life as arguably compelling as his public one as a FBI head honcho.   

To call tackling a film biopic about someone so enigmatic as Hoover an “ambitious undertaking” would be a gross understatement, but in the typically disciplined and workmanlike hands of 81-year-old director Clint Eastwood, you gain an impression that the underlining material is in reasonably sound hands.  Very oddly – but compellingly – paired with MILK screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Eastwood successfully acknowledges the Hoover of many facets: the trendsetting man who invented many modern law enforcement practices; a leader who spearheaded investigations into some of his century's most notorious cases; a crafty and cunning manipulator that used his resources to exploit the weaknesses of both his enemies and his higher powered political allies; and, of course, the more sensationalistic aspects of Hoover’s lifestyle that have been the fodder of comedians for decades.   

Black’s somewhat thankless script is equally ambitious, but somehow shapeless and too obliquely exploratory for its own good.  Perhaps this is complicated by the fact that the film – like CITIZEN KANE – uses a series of elaborate, but sometimes awkwardly juxtaposed flashbacks and flashforwards during a vast span between the 1920’s and 1970’s to chronicle the rise of Hoover from a man infatuated with the Red Scare of the early part of the century and ultimately to an increasingly powerful figure within the FBI that, by the time he was in the autumn of his life, was almost untouchable.  The present time of the film is the period just before his death in 1972 as he dictates his life story to a series of fascinated and inquisitive male assistants for an upcoming book.  The fragmented nature of the film’s chronology, no doubt, is meant to reflect the equally splintered nature of its subject matter, but more often than not the film’s constant jumping from period to period leaves viewers at a perplexed distance: we leave the film not gaining a more deeply rich impression of the man than when we entered the theatre.  Sometimes, the film poses more unwanted questions than sought after answers. 



After a brief period spent in the “present”, we meet Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in 1919 as a 24-year-old idealist that becomes enraged by the bomb planting of Communist agitators in the country.  These events, it’s argued, led to his steadfast devotion to preserving law and order and, most crucially, his control freak nature.  His relationship with his autocratic mother (a tour de force Judi Dench) clearly helps to mould Hoover into a figure that was essentially forced by his upbringing to achieve greatness.  From his humble beginnings and his lustful craving for justice, Hoover would come to head the FBI, where he spearheaded new fangled forensic evidence handling procedures (that were shunned at the time), hired fringe scientific experts who knew things that most other normal scientists would not have time for, and dreamt an ingenious dream of having a nation-wide database devoted to the new science of fingerprinting.  This man was a visionary. 

As he rose to power so did the FBI, and the film reveals its participation in hunting down the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapper (one of the film’s more intoxicating mini-storylines), the finding and killing of John Dillinger, and when time passed by and gangsters and dirty commies were not in his rear view, Hoover targeted bigger fish by using his “secret files” to gain leverage over the figures like the Kennedy brothers and, in one self-indulgent and misguided instance, a one-man vendetta versus Martin Luther King Jr..  One of the themes of J. EDGAR is how the man maintains tightly fanatical tunnel vision to the ideals he held dear when the country around him altered around his ideology, which left the man growing more deeply paranoid by the minute, up until his death.  The secondary theme is one of demythologizing Hoover’s self-imposed and self-aggrandizing image as a one-man crusader: he never, for example, killed Dillinger himself nor did he make many personal arrests, but he sure took credit for them. 

Outside of his main relationship with his mother, Hoover had two other noteworthy ones: The first being with his secretary (a nicely understated Naomi Watts) who - after a very, very awkward attempt at wooing her as a young man - made her his personal secretary for his entire career.  The other is with FBI Associate Director Tolson (Armie Hammer) a young and handsome lawyer that Hoover handpicked as his right hand man…and constant confidant.  The bond of these two men perhaps was an aching thorn in Hoover’s side, which, in turn, led to Hoover possibly suppressing his homosexual desires and made him the megalomaniacal compulsive that typified his work life.  His mother saw through her son’s sexual denial and, in the film’s most haunting scene, explains to him why having a gay son would be like having a dead one.  Now that's tough love.   

The oddity of Eastwood and Black’s handling of these more potentially tawdry aspects of Hoover’s life is that they seem to oppose one another: Eastwood has come out to say that the Hoover/Tolson relationship would not “go down the road” of exploring their homosexual leanings.  Yet, Black’s screenplay certainly goes directly down this path, which creates a weird disconnect between the writer and director here.  Eastwood seems too tentative and conservative for exploring it more deeply, whereas Black seems equal to the task.  Both men are guilty, I think, of just glossing over what they actually thought of Hoover: Do Eastwood and Black respect Hoover, admonish him, or a frustrating combination of both?  Hoover was a trailblazer in his profession and a man who loved his country, but he was also a deeply selfish and vengeful man that would stoop to any level to potentially ruin people’s lives.  It’s not that Eastwood and Black don’t present a meaningfully layered portrait of all of these divergent extremes; it’s just that they don’t thoughtfully comment on them very much.   

J. EDGAR is largely saved, though, by its exemplary eye for period detail and production artifice.  The film is also a performance juggernaut:  DiCaprio’s somewhat stilted and mannered dialect as Hoover takes some getting used to, but as the film progresses the more he immerses himself in every discrete nuance of the man.  His portrayal is intensely determined as well, seeing as he has to plausibly encapsulate the figure from his twenties to his seventies.  Even when the beyond-obvious plastic and rubber old age makeup betrays the actor’s impeccable work (it’s glaringly distracting at times) DiCaprio’s manages to shine though every minute of J. EDGAR.  Complimenting him nicely is arguably the film’s more skillfully restrained performance by Armie Hammer, who has the difficult task of playing a man that was clearly Hoover’s occupational subservient, but often had control over him in ways that neither could possible acknowledge or understand.    

I think that the modest failure of J. EDGAR as a biopic is not that it doesn't explore the many facets of the man’s career and life, but rather that it doesn't really exploit them for the purposes of creating a more intrinsically enthralling expose.  The film is an unqualified triumph on a performance and art direction level, and some of its individual storylines involving Hoover and the FBI’s crime-solving pursuits are, in their own right, compulsively engaging.  Yet, the film holds back a bit too much when it should have intrepidly lunged forward, which leaves J. EDGAR an epically mounted, consummately produced, but ultimately flawed and problematic biopic. 

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