It has been almost 40 years since J. Edgar Hoover died as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He served under 8 presidential terms and was considered at times the second most powerful man in government. Now, he is speculatively labeled as a cross-dresser, a gay man, and someone who was too fearful to expose his true personality. He had all his personal files shredded away at the time of his death. That’s why director Clint Eastwood doesn’t aim his focus towards Hoover’s exact chronological endeavors so much as the arc of Hoover’s emotional complexity, how certain actions and people affected him ideologically and internally. Like some of Eastwood’s earlier films (Hereafter, Invictus, Mystic River), this bio-pic centers on impactful moments, key actions that contain the meaning behind the cause and effect, and the arc of human relationships.
J. Edgar, written by Dustin Lance Black (who coincidentally wrote Capote, a bio-pic of a homosexual), begins with Hoover, played forcefully and scrupulously by Leonardo DiCaprio, as an old man relaying his past endeavors for a personal manuscript. He imparts his history to numerous scribes, the first played by Ed Westwick, and Eastwood relates this in Slumdog Millionaire fashion, imaging past scenes as Hoover divulges his former life. His recollections however impart a revisionist history of sorts, reaffirming the public image that he was the man on the front lines, taking bullets and cuffing the baddies. Some of these include the gangster John Dillinger and further explored in the film, the Lindbergh baby case. He disregards his actual lack of presence at these arrests, painting the picture of himself as a G-Man, a comic superhero, and figure of law enforcement to aspire to, demonstrated as movie theater propaganda for the masses.
Hoover on the outside is stern, inflexible, and unequivocally paranoid. When elected head of the bureau, he wipes the department clean, desiring only those he believes he can trust. Critically affected by the early American Communist movement in his youth, he brings in this fear-controlled ideology into the office, requiring a mutual understanding of the work to be done. He receives an application from Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a dapper and determined man with whom Hoover finds instant attraction. Their relationship, both professional and personal is condensed, but begins to tap into J. Edgar’s internal confusion. Tolson becomes his right-hand man, and moreover a companion, providing moral support for Edgar, as he liked to be called, in the court room, lobbying for further federal power.
The film is flooded with a noir like lens, a dark, muddy quality categorizing things in all shades of gray. Eastwood uses this colored expression to describe the more socially intriguing aspect of J. Edgar’s hidden life. He intimates Hoover’s relationship with Tolson in some particularly masterful scenes of confusion and jealousy. The rumors about Hoover and Tolson’s romance and subsequent political ragging- namely persecuting the homosexual community- could have set the stage for a polarizing depiction of hypocrisy. But Eastwood does not dress Hoover with noticeable flamboyance nor creates an unsympathetic impression of him. Instead he carefully weaves through a man containing elegant charm without anywhere to expand. His incommodious presence around women strengthens invisible, closeted ties and his struggles with speech gently recite his fragility. Hoover’s public exterior remains his assertive known self, but this deeper exposure paints a richer complexion and pervades a better understanding of someone obsessed with his image.
The timeline continually skips around, cleverly using dialogue to bridge the gaps and create connections. However, the young to old to older Hoover transitions do not appear to serve much purpose, if only to toy with the understanding of his decision-making. It becomes almost too evident, forcing us to ponder longer than usual why certain cuts were executed instead of finding their more subtle hints within the flow of the narrative. Part of this problem is deciphering old from older with the exaggerated, shoestring makeup design. Luckily, these problems do not endure because of some well-informed mannerisms and aging characteristics by J. Edgar’s strong performances. Hammer magnetizes a sympathy through his repressed being that embeds his discordance with Hoover’s later decisions, and yet he still follows his lead. His warm inclinations ease into DiCaprio’s haunting portrait of a man battling his flaws and fear by brazenly depicting himself above them, even in close company.
Hoover’s inventiveness and extreme Red Scare influence also conjured the investigative tactics in practice today. His demand for scientific forensics like fingerprints and crime-scene objects were products of his interminable work ethic and demand to purify a country of its apparent evil. Eastwood subtly creases through time and while the ridges in Hoover’s forehead become more pronounced, his anti-communist ideals cease to quaver. “Even great men can become corrupt,” he narrates over, but as his life toggles back and forth and his paranoia amplifies, we begin to question if he can embrace that for himself.
The two women in the film, though they share little spotlight and screen time, contain significantly formidable roles and a heavy influence over the characterization and reputation of J Edgar. An unconventional first date to the National Library begins the professional relationship between Edgar and his lifetime secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), the woman who would secretly dispose of all of his files. His mother Annie (Judi Dench) however is portrayed as the nagging fire under his unworthy belly. She derogates “daffodill” men, and issues discrete warnings of her disapproval with Edgar’s certain choices, forming a foundation of inadequacy that ripples his entire life.
This relationship, though Eastwood does not delve into it much, appears to be the most intriguing. A freudian complex that withers J. Edgar Hoover’s insides, and still ignites his strong desire to maintain a structurally sound exterior.