By Don Simpson | November 11, 2011
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Jeffrey Donovan, Christopher Shyer, Geoff Pierson, Jack Donner, Jessica Hecht, Jack Axelrod, Zach Grenier
For those of you who were hiding under a rock for most of the 20th century and have little to no knowledge of United States history, J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the [Federal] Bureau of Investigation (Hoover is credited for adding the word “Federal” to his bureau’s title in 1935) from 1924 until he died in 1972. Hoover presided over the [F]BI under the administrations of Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Sadly, most people only remember one thing about Hoover: he liked to dress up like a woman (a rumor that has never been verified).
Director Clint Eastwood’s bio-pic of Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) — J. Edgar — reminds us that Hoover lived with his mother (Judi Dench) until she died and he never married. Penned by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), Eastwood’s film chooses to focus on a close, lifelong friendship that Hoover had with a tall, handsome and dashingly dressed bachelor (who just so happened to inherit Hoover’s estate), Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Eastwood and Black lay out ample clues to let the audience know that Tolson is a “dandelion” (as Mama Hoover would say); heck, Tolson even critiques someone’s attire as “fashion forward” (in the 1930s, no less!), thus making Tolson into a sort of precursor for Tim Gunn. By all of this proxy, Eastwood and Black are suggesting that Hoover was gay. Hoover and Tolson go to clubs and horse races together; they go away on weekends together (sleeping in adjoining suites!); and they hold hands. Shocking stuff, I tell you!
But despite placing Hoover’s sexuality at the center of J. Edgar, the film goes as far as postulating that Hoover was celibate for his entire life. Essentially, Eastwood (reportedly a fiscal conservative and social liberal) and Black are telling us that Hoover was gay, but he never consummated his sexuality. Presumably, Hoover liked to look at men and keep very attractive men within close reach, but he never attempted to even kiss a man. The focus on Hoover’s sexuality (or lack there of) seems to suggest that even though he was a tyrant and a manipulative liar, he was also capable of love and therefore worthy of our sympathy. Eastwood and Black also appear to be suggesting that Hoover’s rigidity and paranoia are directly related to his repressed homosexuality; while his deep-seated mother issues contribute to his purported knack for cross-dressing.
J. Edgar is an incredibly gentle bio-pic of a historical figure who was — to put it bluntly — “Big Brother” personified. For anyone who ardently cares about personal freedom, Hoover is one of the greatest evils who has ever existed, at least in the United States. It seems strange to me that Eastwood and Black appear to be making excuses for Hoover’s behavior. But — sorry guys! — even the greatest storytellers in the world could never convince me to develop even the slightest drop of sympathy for Hoover. In my humble opinion, Hoover ruined the lives of countless innocent people by fostering the idea that the Constitution does not apply to anyone who is critical of the United States government.
Besides, virtually every gay man of Hoover’s generation was repressed. Hoover was no martyr, and he was certainly no saint. If Hoover was not so tyrannically homophobic in the first place, maybe gays would not have felt so repressed; but because Hoover was not getting any action, no gay in the United States was permitted to. Besides, it was essentially Hoover’s militant anti-gay position that served as his beard.
Sure, Eastwood and Black do address — albeit fleetingly — some of the things that made Hoover so horrible: the arrests of thousands of communists and anarchists (who had committed no crime) during the Palmer raids of 1919-20; the gathering of secret files on the sexual indiscretions of public figures (including Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.); conducting secret surveillance on suspected Communists within Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration; and blatantly perjuring himself before Congress. However, Hoover’s purported racist tendencies are ignored; as is his refusal to allow gays, women, or many blacks to become FBI agents.
There are, however, some intriguing aspects of J. Edgar. For one, I like when and how Hoover is revealed to be an unreliable narrator, inflating his own role and stretching the truth. (Much of the film is told by way of flashbacks as the elder Hoover dictates a memoir of his time with the FBI to a rotating cast of typists.) I also enjoy how Eastwood shows Hoover’s influence on Hollywood, such as when Jimmy Cagney changes from portraying gangsters in the early-1930s (The Public Enemy) to playing FBI agents a couple decades later. Also, despite being somewhat hampered by his accent, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is subtle yet quite persuasive. At times, DiCaprio resembles Orson Welles as the elderly Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, but most of time his age make-up works well. (Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast’s make-up.)
When it comes down to it, J. Edgar is a muddled and mediocre mess of a film — mired primarily by haphazard timeline jumps from past to present — that opts for sappy melodrama over any sort of historical, political or social commentary. Similar to Oliver Stone’s W. — though done [presumably] unintentionally — Eastwood creates comedic caricatures of historical figures such as Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and Richard Nixon (Christopher Shyer); thankfully, not all of the historical figures are given the same treatment, for example the portrayals of Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas), Ginger Rogers (Jamie LaBarber), and Shirley Temple (Emily Alyn Lind) are done with slightly more reverence.