J. Edgar (2011)

Rated R. Our Ratings: V-4 ;L -5 ; S/N –1. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
I the Lord test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.
Jeremiah 17:9-10

J. Edgar Hoover, with his assistant Clyde Tolson at his side, testifies to a Congressional committee.

© 2011 Warner brothers

It would have been easy to have skewered the once feared head of the FBI as a self-righteous racist too cowardly to deal with his gender problem, but fortunately neither director Clint Eastwood nor screenwriter Dustin Lance Black were interested in doing so. Nor do they try to whitewash his character, following the lead of the radio and G-Men movies of the Thirties and Forties. We might have expected the conservative Eastwood to lean that way, but not Black—after all, he wrote the screenplay for Milk. Instead what we have is a “warts and all” biopic recognizing that this flawed man was capable of much good, the monument to this being the FBI itself, as well as much harm to those whom he opposed. The episodic film takes the form of an elderly Hoover dictating to a series of young agents his memoirs, the action shifting back and forth from the Sixties to the preceding decades, beginning with the Twenties.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hoover, spanning some fifty years, is thus far a capstone to his distinguished career. The script well shows the origins of Hoover’s fierce anti-Communism—in one scene he says, “Communism is not a political party — it is a disease” —by depicting the 1919 anarchist bombing of the home of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson). This led to the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids in which numerous anarchists and Communists were rounded up, some of them being deported. On the night of the explosion Hoover, then holding a low level position at the Justice Department, arrives on a bicycle at the chaotic scene and notices right away how the police are carelessly trampling any evidence that the perpetrators might have left. This concern for protecting a crime scene and gathering evidence runs throughout the film, especially in the episode of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby when Hoover gets into an argument with state troopers over their heedless destruction of evidence.

The film spends most of its time on Hoover’s rise and his formation of what was called the Bureau of Investigation. He carefully chose well groomed and college educated men, even firing one who did not want to shave his mustache. Time after time the Director appears before Congress to seek more funds for his pet projects, such as a crime laboratory. His first lab was a makeshift affair set up in the Justice department’s lounge, much to the dismay of the senior staff who used it. Only after the Lindbergh case was he able to acquire a central file for fingerprints, as well as a more permanent lab.

That Hoover was a master of promotion, both of the Bureau and of himself, is artfully shown in many scenes. When he formed the agency public sympathy lay with the criminals, as we see in the theater where a newsreel of Hoover speaking is cut short, to the delight of the audience, and a film in which the popular actor James Cagney glorifies a gangster is projected. Hoover covertly allows writers of comic books and radio scripts access to case files, resulting in the public coming to perceive G-Men as heroic crime fighters protecting the public from gangsters. When he is accused of never having actually held a gun and arresting a crook, Hoover does exactly that, making sure that reporters are on hand to show him as a man of action. And woe to an agent who captures any publicity so that he might become a rival!

The film does delve somewhat into Hoover’s private life, though because he was so secretive, some of this is speculation. His relation to his mother is shown as that of a Mother’s boy, the two living together until her death. What a difficult, harsh mother she must have been! Anna Marie (Judi Dench) at one point tells her son that she would prefer a dead son than one who is a “daffodil,” this word apparently the forerunner of the slur, “pansy.” After personally hiring Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), Hoover becomes so attracted to him that he makes him his personal assistant. Although actor DiCaprio has said that he does not know for sure Hoover’s sexual orientation, the film reveals their mutual attraction, Tolson planting a kiss on his boss in one scene. Hoover pulls back so that we do not know if there was any physical consummation beyond that. Much earlier, Hoover had taken fellow employee Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) on a strange date to the Library of Congress where he both showed off his knowledge of cataloging and tried to come onto her. When she resisted him, he stopped. After that, when he became Bureau head, their relationship was that of boss and devoted secretary, her loyalty being shown in one of the scenes following Hoover’s death.

Most of the film deals with people and events of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties: there is a parade of famous names making cameo appearances—Mitchell Palmer, Emma Goldman, Charles Lindbergh, Bruno Hauptmann, and Ginger and Lela Rogers. Although Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon appear on screen, it would have been nice had there been more footage devoted to the Sixties and Hoover’s animosity to the Civil Rights Movement, and to his detestation of Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular. In this respect a TV mini-series would have been a better form in which to tell the fuller story. Nonetheless what Eastwood and Black have compiled makes for an engrossing film experience. The theme of “Knowledge is power” comes through strong, with Hoover compiling files on virtually everyone in Washington, from Eleanor Roosevelt through Nixon. Even with all their power neither Presidents nor Attorney Generals dared to cross him lest he release some of the information concerning their private indiscretions he held.

The filmmakers have brought us a tale of a conflicted man, one who fell far short of greatness, but who achieved much. Those who despised him might learn to appreciate some of his accomplishments through this film, and those who admired him as a saint combating the evils of the time might acquire a more rounded picture of his character—though none will ever fully understand its cryptic nature. Director Eastwood continues to amaze his fans as he tackles such a wide variety of film genres.

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