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J. Edgar (2011)

By Bryan Nixon.

“Edgar, you will rise to be the most powerful man in this country,” Annie Hoover (Judi Dench) prophesies to her son J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in a dark suburbia bedroom. Her vision is proven true, because he created, headed, and personified the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States (he served as the first director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972). His private life supposedly conflicted in many ways with the conservative, moral code of conduct that he enforced on the Bureau. Like the man himself, J. Edgar is a film that does not share its secrets. What director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black present with this aesthetically pristine biopic is a speculative, meandering, and shy rendition of what we already know about the controversial and legendary American who had and knew an arsenal of secrets.

“Imagine if every citizen in this country were uniquely identifiable by the pattern on their fingertips. Image how quickly we could find them if they committed a crime,” Hoover proclaims in a daydream that defines the true scope of his ambition. Those around him initially thought he was foolishly unrealistic. J. Edgar is concerned with the rise of his stature in the FBI and his paranoia-laden last years. In the beginning, he saw communists within the United States as the greatest threat to the nation in the 1920s and hunted them as his initial targets. Hoover hated radicals. And he found success through his hatred. The investigation that shaped his FBI was in the kidnapping and murder case of Charles Lindbergh’s young child. When Hoover first arrives to the crime scene, Lindbergh’s house, he angrily criticizes the policemen and detectives who had tampered with and touched evidence with their bare hands. They belittle him and assert that he is not needed or worthy to work the case. He assembles a team and puts his scientific theories on crime scene investigation to practice and ultimately tracks down the culprit. He never made an arrest, interesting to note because he talks as if he did everything himself.

The Dillinger era and World War II are bypassed in an attempt to examine his scandalous years during Kennedy and Nixon’s presidencies. Hoover spends his time concealed in his dismal office listening to recordings of sexual affairs involving important political figures. He is presented as a snoopy pervert in this respect. His reason for acquiring these illegal tapes was to achieve leverage over these leaders. He believed that Martin Luther King, Jr. was America’s greatest national threat in the 1960s and wanted to topple his movement. In an attempt to quietly prevent King from continuing his lead, Hoover warns that he will release the tapes if he accepts the Nobel Peace Prize; King does not adhere to this threat.

Leonardo DiCaprio is known for playing characters that live a double life. He has previously starred as an undercover cop (The Departed, 2006), a con man (Catch Me If You Can, 2002), and a troubled patient who actively shields himself from his murderous memories (Shutter Island, 2010); moreover, with Inception (2010) his intimate, secret memories plague his dream raiding escapades. With the power that Hoover attained, it is clear that he violated the law to secure his grasp in the FBI (examples include the aforementioned illegal recordings). J. Edgar hypothesizes that Hoover was sexually repressed. When he takes his future lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) on a first date to the Library of Congress, he hastily proposes but she declines his offer. She says that all she can focus on is her work, so he immediately hires Helen. Hoover prides himself in his and his colleagues’ presentation. He often criticizes or applauds the way in which others dress. Examining his employees in a hallway, Hoover fires a man with a moustache who doesn’t want to shave it off because women find it attractive. His right hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), is a tall, handsome, sharp-dressed professional whose relationship with Hoover is assumed as being sexual. Tolson says that he will work with Hoover under one condition: they must have lunch and dinner together every day. And so they do. A shot hints at their private relationship: Tolson and Hoover hold hands while riding in the back seat of a vehicle. Neither man married. In a hotel scene where Hoover informs Tolson that he has found a woman who he is considering marrying, Tolson erupts, “I see right through you! You scared, heartless, horrible little man!” Punches are thrown, but once Tolson has Hoover pinned to the floor, he kisses his bloody lip. Hoover stops him and questions Tolson’s sexual advances. Tolson furiously walks away and says that he will quit if Hoover marries. Hoover quietly cries, “I love you,” and never marries. Hoover’s time at home with his mother is troubling for various reasons. She threatens Hoover that she’d rather be dead than have a son who is a “daffodil.” Their relationship, as depicted in the film, recalls Norman Bates in Psycho; she is overly possessive and controlling of Hoover, and he wears her necklace and dress in front of her bedroom mirror mourning her death.

Hoover’s relationship with Tolson is the only sense of heart leaking through the frame. Armie Hammer’s performance shows that Tolson was a man who was not afraid of his appearance or sexuality; he embraces his love for Hoover. Leonardo DiCaprio shapes a character that is scared of the world around him and therefore does not know how to act in private; he is confused by his sexuality. The conclusion that Dustin Lance Black has made is that Hoover was a highly motivated worker who was a closet homosexual living in an era when homosexuality was unspeakable. Dustin Lance Black previously won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), a vastly superior film about San Francisco politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, which is a companion piece to his J. Edgar. Milk was a proud homosexual in public and private whereas Hoover was a scared and repressed homosexual in public and private. The speculations in J. Edgar do not hold any weight in reality because it has not been proven that Hoover was a homosexual.

This is a flawed yet ambitious film that is incredible in its period piece set design and wardrobe but lackluster in its nonlinear and uninspired crime investigation plot structure. The makeup applied to the three lead actors to provide an elderly appearance is sometimes extraordinary, sometimes annoyingly distracting. The cinematography is heavily contrasted and blown out in that light is white, the faintest of shadows are black, and browns are murky. The majority of the dialogue is dull and stiff: “When morals decline and good men do nothing, evil flourishes. A society unwilling to learn from the past is doomed. We must never forget our history.” J. Edgar is not insightful and many exaggerated scenes border on soft Clint Eastwood camp. As I sat in the theater, audience members laughed at scenes that were intentionally serious and many walked out during the third act. For a more competent and focused Hoover-era film, I recommend Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). That film does not share any secrets either, but at least it does not pretend to.

Bryan Nixon is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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Film Details

J. Edgar (2011)

Director Clint Eastwood

Screenplay by Dustin Lance Black

Producers Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, & Robert Lorenz

Director of Photography Tom Stern

Editors Joel Cox & Gary Roach

Art Director Greg Berry

Set Decoration Gary Fettis

Costumes Deborah Hopper

Score Clint Eastwood

With Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Naomi Watts (Helen Gandy), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson), Judi Dench (Annie Hoover), Josh Lucas (Charles Lindbergh), Jeffrey Donovan (Robert Kennedy)

4 Comments for “J. Edgar (2011)”

  1. Finally, an intelligent and analytical review of J. Edgar! I am so sick of the mean spirited critics out there who fail to back up their arguments, and only manage to scream that the movie is terrible.

    Thanks to your very interesting article, I will see this film as soon as possible— and make my own informed decisions.

  2. Thank you for your comment! I do recommend watching it, because it does have some interesting ideas and scenes. It’s just unbalanced and forced at times. The biopic is a delicate genre.

  3. Christopher Sharrett

    I appreciate your comments, but find this film wanting. Eastwood seems to have discovered that repression has consequences—to make the point he humanizes a fiend like Hoover. We learn that his greatest sins were lying, spying on Dr. King, and engaging in self-promotion. But Hoover was one of the more monstrous figures of the U.S. state apparatus, an avowed white supremacist who constructed the COINTELPRO operation to destroy the civil rights movement. One of his “informants”, Gary Thomas Rowe, killed civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo while he was traveling with the Ku Klux Klan. Hoover vigorously pursued leftists of all stripes, and was a prime mover of the HUAC/McCarthy era. Hoover’s pursuit of Depression-era bandits (many brought down by local authorities) made his bones, helping his public image as he gained unlimited funding for the FBI.. He has long been a key suspect in the Martin Luther King assassination. And he and his friend Roy Cohn persecuted gays. It is an atrocity that this movie generates sympathy for this man, much as Oliver Stone’s film Nixon did for another barbarian. For a thoughtful film about Hoover and his role in twentieth-century U.S. state policy, I recommend Larry Cohen’s remarkable The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, or Emile de Antonio’s Mr. Hoover and I.

  4. I did not like this film. I found it wanting, too. Maybe I did not make that clear?

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