Film Reviews

J. EDGAR

By • Nov 22nd, 2011 •

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DiCaprio astonishes. It is a revelation. Eastwood directs another sad love story but leaves his hackneyed, over-used score behind.

John Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972, was a feared and ruthless man who ran the FBI as his personal gestapo. If information is power, Hoover made it an art.

Hoover singlehandedly ran the FBI for 48 years. Not even cruel, absolute ruthless dictators can top that.

As played by DiCaprio, directed by Clint Eastwood, and written by Dustin Lance Black, Hoover is an emotionally troubled man hiding his personal life.

If Hoover was gay, he was monogamous.

Instead of a linear story, J EDGAR jumps back and forth in time. In his later years, Hoover decides to write his history of the FBI. We see how Hoover began and then transformed the FBI into a stunning, feared, and highly respected institution.

Hoover had a domineering mother, Annie Hoover (Judi Dench), he lived with her whole life. She may have been a harridan with a strong bias against feminine men (she called them “daffodils”), but her son became the most powerful man who reigned over six U.S. presidents. [Six as director of the FBI: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. He was also the sixth director of the “Bureau of Investigation” under Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover before the office of FBI Director was created in March, 1935.]

Amazingly, Hoover was able to find people who sacrificed their lives to serve him completely and without judgment. After being romantically turned down by a co-worker, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), Hoover hires her as his personal secretary, gatekeeper and guardian of his secret files. A mother substitute, Grady appears to have no life outside Hoover’s office. And since we see Grady grow old alongside Hoover, she was a fiercely loyal employee who he entrusted with his damning secret files.

Hoover must have had a keen sense of quickly sizing people up, for as soon as he meets handsome, tall Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), he hires him as an FBI agent. Tolson rises fast within the ranks as Hoover’s second in command. Tolson had a very important and powerful position as Hoover’s confidante, but he never uses it! In fact, as Eastwood and Black portray him, he’s Hoover’s conscience.

Tolson was Hoover’s vizier but never abused his position.

The relationship seems chaste until Hoover invites Tolson to the races at Del Mar. Sharing a hotel suite with two bedrooms, it is clear Tolson wants a sexual relationship with Hoover. This is one of two highly stunning, powerful scenes. They kiss angry but reach a strange non-sexual relationship based on wrestling.

Tolson and Hoover never lived together.

What was it about Hoover that made Tolson so enamored with him? It certainly was not his good looks or charming personality. Hoover was a nasty piece of work. He was friendless on purpose.

No matter how accepting we are today about homosexuality – except if our political leaders and movie stars are gay – the cultural milieu during Hoover’s long tenure was quite different. Would Hoover, the master of messy sexual secrets that could destroy a career, allow anyone to see him dressed up as “Mary” wearing a wig, a black dress, lace stockings, and high heels in a New York hotel room crammed with young, blond men?*

Was Hoover a blackmailing cross-dresser? Would a man so despised give his enemies that weapon to destroy him? Or was possible discovery the real thrill?

J EDGAR doesn’t offer an opinion.

What screenwriter Black fails to convey – the mean-spirited Hoover who dominated others the way his mother dominated him – DiCaprio gives us in spades. Even if his dialogue does not give us the absolute ruthlessness of the real Hoover, DiCaprio’s voice, expressions and demeanor tells us everything. Hoover was a bastard.

As Niccolo Machiavelli said: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

DiCaprio’s performance is fearless and brilliant. However, the romantic longing of Eastwood’s directing diminishes the film. There continues to be a glaring dark shadow of regret, unhappiness and lost love that permeates all of Eastwood’s movies. J EDGAR had a small budget of $35 million and only a 39 day shoot. DiCaprio took a 90% pay cut to play Hoover.

Didn’t Hoover ever enjoy his absolute power? Come on! Who wouldn’t?

Eastwood and Black could have gone darker and grittier – clearly DiCaprio would not have objected.

DiCaprio becomes Hoover embracing his hardened, pugnacious character. It is not a charitable role and DiCaprio’s performance deserves the Academy Award for Best Actor. What other performance can beat this?

*The alleged transvestitism of Hoover has never been established, and reputable historians say it’s an urban legend. The story probably got its start because of more plausible rumors that Hoover was gay. He and his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson, were constant companions for more than 40 years, even vacationing together, and both remained lifelong bachelors. The cross-dressing thing is a definite no. The story appears in Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1993), a biography by British journalist Anthony Summers, who has also written a JFK assassination conspiracy book. Summers says he got his info from Susan Rosenstiel, fourth wife of Lewis Rosenstiel, a liquor distiller with reputed mob connections.

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