J. Edgar, the latest film from director Clint Eastwood, tells us the story of J. Edgar Hoover through his nearly 50-year career of building and leading the FBI. With a script from Dustin Lance Black (Milk), J. Edgar doesn’t give a thoroughly detailed history, but more takes the route of a complex character study. For the most part, it’s a pretty darn good movie, though it does have it’s flaws.
The framework used involves Hoover dictating his memoirs using various FBI agents through the 60s and early 70s. Within this, the narrative jumps around through time starting with Hoover’s beginnings with the Justice Department all the way up through his time as FBI director under president Richard Nixon.
Throughout this, we see Hoover defined through his relationships with three people- his right-hand man at the FBI, Clyde Tolson, his mother, Annie Hoover and his personal secretary, Helen Gandy. The most defining moments occur with Tolson and Hoover’s mother. These moments are also the ones that most define Hoover’s repressed homosexuality, and show how that repression gave him his drive for power using questionable methods. The relationships with his mother and Tolson are very strong and defining, but they don’t show a complete picture. Where it falls short is with Hoover’s relationship with his secretary, who in the end does the most to preserve Hoover’s legacy.
Helen Gandy starts off as an object of desire for a young Hoover before he’s been made the head of the FBI. She rebuffs his advancements and prefers to keep their relationship on a professional level. Hoover makes her his personal secretary. Gandy stays with him up to his death, being (as shown in the movie) the only person who knows what’s in all of the personal files that Hoover kept on people like Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. She’s loyal to him to the end, but the reason why for that extreme loyalty is never really touched upon and to me anyway makes this a huge fault in the film. Hoover commanded respect for more than just intimidation with his power, and Helen Gandy would’ve been the ideal way to show that. Now this can be easily explained away that there just wasn’t too much source material on Gandy to make these speculations and that’s certainly understandable, but without this, this portrait just isn’t as complete as it should be.
The movie covers Hoover’s accomplishments in broad strokes primarily focusing on Hoover’s early days of busting Communists and tracking down the suspect in the kidnapping and murder of the Lindburgh baby. Little is said of Hoover during the McCarthy era of hunting Communists other than Hoover calling McCarthy an opportunist. Involvement with John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King is touched upon, but with little depth, with his dealings with Robert Kennedy being the biggest exception. Thanks to what’s shown around the Lindburgh kidnapping, we are shown the major advancements of the use of forensic evidence in crime investigation and I certainly appreciated that aspect of Hoover’s career being shown. This is a long movie, weighing in at 137 minutes and even at that length, Eastwood and Black bit off a little more than they could chew. I’m not necessarily expecting this to be a total history of the FBI, but I would expect that other key historical events would’ve had more to say about Hoover’s character, beyond just his personal relationships.
Now with that said, J. Edgar is still very much recommended to see. The reason for that is in it’s tour-de-force performance from Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. For a time after Titanic I used to roll my eyes whenever I saw DiCaprio in something that had him as a more mature character, but after he made The Aviator with Martin Scorsese that all started to change. Now, I think DiCaprio’s one of the very best actors out there thanks to movies like The Departed and Inception. His portrayal as J. Edgar Hoover is the driving force of this film and it’s just spectacular. With deliberate and careful vocal intonation and an intensity in his eyes, DiCaprio’s Hoover isn’t just a man to be extremely despised or thoroughly celebrated. In my eyes, it might be his best performance yet.
Armie Hammer plays Clyde Tolson and it’s certainly a far cry from his performance as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. He’s way more obvious about his homosexuality in comparison to DiCaprio’s Hoover and he’s the conscience of the film. Where Hammer’s performance falls a little short is in scenes with him playing an older Tolson. It’s not so much Hammer’s performance as it’s more with the make-up used to age him, it’s just not as convincing as that used with DiCaprio, and thus weakens the performance.
Dame Judi Dench plays Annie Hoover and next to DiCaprio’s performance, it’s the next best in the film. Hoover’s drive is certainly well represented thanks to what Dench does with the part. Naomi Watts plays Helen Gandy and because of what I talked about above, she’s the least of our main cast. It’s no fault of her own, she just doesn’t not have the meat that everyone else has to work with and it’s not only a shame for her, but also for the movie as a whole.
J. Edgar is a complex character study that’s worth seeing for Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance alone. I came away from this film with more respect for Hoover than I had before even though he had some despicable methods for getting what he wanted. That respect comes from what Leonardo DiCaprio brought to the table. There is a man there that thoroughly believed what he was doing was the right thing and the way DiCaprio plays it, you just can’t quantify it as being completely good or evil, but necessary for how J. Edgar Hoover saw that the job needed to be done.