Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 22, 2011
He built one of the nation’s most important law-enforcement agencies, routed the Bolsheviks and anarchists in the 1920s, jailed scores of gun-toting mobsters in the 1930s, relentlessly pushed Congress to enact more aggressive crime-fighting measures, successfully promoted the use of advanced forensic techniques, was a trusted partner under eight presidents and served his country for almost half a century.
He was also a tyrannical bully, a mama’s boy, a dangerous demagogue who transformed the FBI into a personal fiefdom above the law. He dressed in women’s clothes and had a long-time love affair with the man he hired as his assistant, even as he was blackmailing presidents with the salacious details of their sex lives.
Yes, J. Edgar Hoover was a complex and protean figure, one of the century’s most controversial. And it is to director Clint Eastwood’s credit that his new biopic J. Edgar shows you both sides of the man. Patriotic visionary or paranoid villain? Take your pick.
Most viewers will pick villain, because the movie skews heavily that way. “Information is power,” Hoover tells one of his colleagues, and we see him use it shamelessly to expand the agency and advance his career. Robert Kennedy, his boss as attorney general, tries to put the FBI chief in his place: “This isn’t the 1920s anymore, Mr. Hoover,” Kennedy says. “Communism is a foreign, not a domestic threat.” Hoover is unfazed. He urges Kennedy to read the file he hands him with details of JFK’s sex life. And as he is leaving, he adds, “Let him know I have a copy of my own in safekeeping.”
The movie is structured as an extended flashback, with Hoover narrating self-serving sequences of his life, which are shown with impressive attention to period detail. In that respect, the movie is a pleasure to watch. There are two love stories, one with his mother (Judi Dench), with whom he lived well into adulthood. When she dies, he finds solace caressing and then donning her necklace and dress. The scene could have been played for laughs. Instead, it’s treated with poignancy and sensitivity. His relationship with his intimate assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), is similarly nuanced.
Nevertheless, the movie is sometimes leaden and problematic. Parts of the screenplay (by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for Milk) are so ham-handed the audience laughed during key dramatic scenes. And the makeup is a disaster. Tolson in old age looks like his head has been roasted in a microwave.
The usually wonderful Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role seems at sea with the character, scowling and emoting, never really settling into a secure performance. Neither he nor Eastwood had a clear bead on Hoover, and that’s critical, because DiCaprio is in almost every scene.
But if director and star were unsure of their subject, Congress was not. On the FBI’s web site, there’s this telling factoid: “On October 15, 1976, in reaction to the extraordinary 48-year term of J. Edgar Hoover, Congress passed Public Law 94-503, limiting the FBI Director to a single term of no longer than 10 years.” There will never be another J. Edgar.