Movie Review - J. Edgar
J. Edgar Hoover was born in Washington, DC on New Year's Day 1895. He was raised in the Eastern Market neighborhood, which lies in the shadow of Capitol Hill. He got his law degree from George Washington University where he also received his Master's degree in 1917. Not long after, Hoover began working for the United States Department of Justice. In the summer of 1919, Hoover was made a division head within the Bureau of Investigation, which is where the movie essentially starts.
Actually, the movie starts in the late 60s, just before Nixon became president. We see an elderly Hoover dictating to a young FBI agent his memoirs or at least giving some kind of one-on-one testimonial of his life. Eastwood then flashes back to 1919 where we see a young Hoover riding his bike to Attorney General Mitchell Palmer's house following an anarchist attack.
Like the opening of Eastwood's previous work Hereafter, this film opens with a bang that thrusts the movie forward at a pace that is pretty-much maintained for a hour and half before the film starts to drag. The pace carries us through Hoover's eventual ascension to director of the Bureau, running it with an almost Napoleon-like manner. He's fueled with the urge of rooting out radicals and revolutionaries from our country. It becomes like an obsession, which then fuels his urge of rooting out criminals.
One case, which becomes major for Hoover is the Charles Lindbergh kidnapping. He comes upon this case half-way through the movie and it becomes something to which Hoover keeps going back until eventually it's solved. Eastwood fluidly flashes back-and-forth between young Hoover's investigations and arrests and elderly Hoover continuing to dictate his memoirs to a variety of agents.
Along the way, we get a sense of who Hoover was. He was a man dedicated to his job, even to the detriment of his social life. He was paranoid, very controlling and quite strict. He valued loyalty above all else. Yet, as a result, he was able to build the FBI up into an organization that set the standard for police procedure. He was also innovative and on the cutting edge of forensic science.
His dedication did come at a price. While he could be charming toward women, intimate situations with them proved quite awkward. The only thing he really knew how to do with women was order his secretaries around or be ordered around himself by his mother, played by Judi Dench. She could easily dote and coddle him, but even the thought of any other kind of relationship with a woman put Hoover in a panic, recognized by his increased stutter.
You'd think that maybe he was just shy, but as he emphatically stated he didn't like dancing with women. Hoover used his FBI to dig up dirt on people whether through photos or audio tapes. He found out about JFK's affair with a woman as well as Eleanor Roosevelt's affair with a woman too. Apparently, he uncovered information about homosexuals regularly, so much so that he could spot them a mile away.
When Hoover hired Tolson to work for the FBI, it was clear that Hoover recognized Tolson as being a homosexual. The movie and DiCaprio's performance imply that the reason Hoover even hired Tolson was because he believed Tolson to be gay and Hoover was attracted to him. Through all their years of working together, Hoover never acted on that attraction, aside from demanding his constant companionship, dinner dates, days at the horse races and the occasional vacation just for the two of them.
However, it was Tolson who had to make the first move and when Hoover rebuffed him, Tolson was noticeably heartbroken and immediately wanted to end their quasi-romance. Hoover in that moment begged Tolson not to leave, and not just leave angry. Hoover said he needed Tolson, but it was never clear in what capacity. It may or may not have been a sexual need but more of just needing someone to whom he could talk ad nauseum without fear of judgment.
Why that someone couldn't have been a woman is arguable. Hoover did try to marry a woman Helen Gandy, played by Naomi Watts. Yet, he was too abrupt. His actions toward her seemed too methodical, but, it was questionable what would have happened if she hadn't refused him. After decades, what developed was a very deep friendship. For Hoover, perhaps it was a slightly unhealthy co-dependence, but clearly Hoover and Tolson are two men who cared about each other.
It was odd though. It felt as if the two of them had been married. No, they didn't make any vows, but, through sickness and in health, they stayed bonded, and Eastwood takes almost every opportunity to pair the two actors in the same frame and either cut or dissolve between the two of them as young men and the two of them as old men. Visually, he was always showing their commitment to one another.
DiCaprio and Hammer depict two, aging, gay men, and it's something you don't see on the big screen often. I'm a fan of DiCaprio, and I think he does a great job here, but I dare say his character isn't as well written as his was in The Aviator, which put him a similar situation of having to portray this larger-than-life real person. DiCaprio is up to the task, but the crafting by Dustin Lance Black doesn't hold him up that well.
I simply never understood what Black wanted us to know or feel about Hoover. For example, there is a narration that Hoover makes right before he meets with Nixon, which I'm not sure if it's meant to be taken as a warning or as the ranting of a mad man. Throughout the movie, we're led to think that we're getting a truthful account, but then at the end, things are subverted and we realize that it's all been lies and I'm not sure what the point of the lies were.
The one misstep on DiCaprio's part would have to be the notorious moment when Hoover puts on women's clothing. With all of Hoover's mommy issues, I just got a Norman Bates vibe in that moment, which seemed off and wrong.
The one misstep on Eastwood's part would have to be that there is a spot where the movie should end, but it doesn't. Eastwood keeps it going. He needlessly drags the movie out. The final note was just needless melodrama that Eastwood should have cut.
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for brief strong language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 17 mins.