Perhaps the only thing worse than an evil man getting near absolute power is a good man getting near absolute power. With an evil man, everyone is going to be watching him, on the lookout for abuses .With a good man, everyone assumes that he’s doing right because, well, he’s a good man.
J. Edgar Hoover, the first, and for several decades only, director of the FBI, started out as a good man, but a man who was clearly willing, from the start, to use legally and morally iffy tactics. No one really challenged him very hard on this. Why would they, since he was a good man? Then as the decades rolled on, the tactics became less legal and less moral and Hoover turned into something far from good.
J. Edgar, the new biopic directed by Clint Eastwood (who is, somewhat to my surprise, 81 years old), and staring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, tells the story of Hoover’s rise to power against a background of terrorist attacks in the early twentieth century; attacks which included the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building and a bombing on Wall Street in 1920. Hoover gets directly involved following a bomb attack on the home of the Attorney General (one of eight bomb attacks that night). He’s a young up-and-comer who has ideas for a more scientific, procedural approach to crime.
Hoover is eventually put in charge of the Bureau of Investigation, and begins to surround himself with various men, including one Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who are nearly as committed to stomping out Communism as he is.
The Bureau gets its first real chance to show the public what it can do when the Lindbergh baby is kidnapped. At first Hoover’s hands are tied by the fact that the Bureau can’t really do much and doesn’t have any federal jurisdiction. He gets the laws changed, and eventually has enough power to pursue and arrest a man who, in retrospect, probably didn’t do it.
At that point there’s no real stopping Hoover. He begins to amass secret files against anyone who he views as a threat to the nation (or to himself, though he seems to view the two as one in the same). These files soon become tools which he’s able to use to keep himself in power through blackmailing everyone from Congressmen on up to, at the very least, Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy.
Throughout all this, we see Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench), and his personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), as well as, of course, his relationship with Tolson, which might have been more had Hoover’s mother made it very clear that she’d rather see her son dead than gay.
Ah, yes, the Tolson question. Tolson was Hoover’s friend and ally and quite probably more. The movie presents them as being deeply committed, probably in love, and never consummating their relationship. The only time Tolson kisses Hoover does not end well. For the record, from everything I can tell the way that their relationship is presented on screen as one that was intensely loving and yet non-sexual seems to be pretty accurate.
The film works for the most part, aside from some pacing issues, and interestingly, I feel that it could have benefited from being a bit longer, so as to have more time to explore the life of Hoover.
For example, the movie spends a great deal of time focusing on the Lindbergh kidnapping, and while that was clearly an important thing for Hoover personally and the FBI in general, I do wonder if there might have been a way to communicate that in a shorter time. It also would have been good to see some of Hoover’s failed efforts and to explore a bit more the illegal nature of much of what he did.
I also would have liked to have seen more of Hoover’s time in the 1950s. His involvement with the likes of HUAC, Joe McCarthy (who he openly scorns in the film), and especially closeted homosexual Roy Cohen could have proven very fascinating.
Also problematical on a more technical level is the aging makeup worn by Hammer to play the older version of Tolson. With him it looks like what it is: a latex mask adjusted somewhat by CGI. It didn’t look nearly as convincing as what Di Caprio had, which might speak more to Di Caprio’s ability to act through such makeup.
I haven’t seen a huge number of Eastwood’s other films, so it’s hard to me to put this one in relationship to those. I will say I found it far more engaging and enjoyable than Unforgiven and about as good as Million Dollar Baby (and certainly less depressing than that). It was also a lot more enjoyable than Invictus.
J. Edgar Hoover was clearly a complex and frequently troubled man. Ultimately this movie does do a very good job of showing him as a determined, effective and deeply flawed human being, every bit as complex as we might expect.