By Monte Lazarus
From the opening bars of music this film is stamped “Director Clint Eastwood”. Mr. Eastwood serves us an inner look at the man who elevated the F.B.I. from a second-rate, narrowly limited police department to an all powerful force in the federal government. Interestingly, the movie is not about the intricacies of the F.B.I. It’s all about the psychological make up of the man who was obsessive, secretive, ambitious, single minded, sexually ambiguous, and amoral enough to lie and indulge in political blackmailing.
Leonardo Di Caprio is J. Edgar Hoover from a 19 year old clerk at the F.B.I., where he is known as “Johnny” to one of the most powerful figures in Washington, D.C. – a man powerful enough and devious enough to take on a series of Presidents of the United States and retain his prestige and power. In the one scene of Hoover taking on the powerful establishment, he confronts Robert Kennedy about President Kennedy’s alleged dalliances. According to the film Hoover kept incriminating or prurient tapes of other public officials, and apparently enjoyed secretly listening to them.
In constantly jumping from one time period to another Eastwood painstakingly paints a portrait of a man who is chained to his mother (Judi Dench) and obsessed with what he views as a threat to America’s very existence. A bomb set by an anarchist at the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in 1919 shocks Hoover, and motivates him to organize and modernize the Bureau to meet his expectation of a law enforcement arm that will protect America. In the film’s beginning the voiceover is that of the aged Hoover, and turns to a view of the stooped, balding, pasty, pudgy Hoover of his last years. The movie’s vehicle is Hoover dictating his memoirs to a series of young F.B.I. agents, and the scenes constantly shift between the present and the past as Hoover describes his role in the life of the agency.
DiCaprio admirably gets into the psychological interior of Hoover as he progresses from a deep hatred of anarchists to revulsion of a perceived Communist threat to bring down the United States to an all-out assault on the gangsters of the 1920’s and ‘30’s to utter contempt for Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. As Hoover progresses from a very young department deputy to Bureau Director in the course of his almost 50 year career he builds his own reputation in lockstep with his building of the Bureau. Eastwood is careful to note the good efforts (fingerprinting as a “science”, comprehensive filing systems) as well as the bad (an obsessive dress-code, illegal wire tapping and disregard for civil rights and ignoring the existence of the mafia).
As a young agent Hoover has a brief attempt at a binding relationship with a woman – Helen Gandy (admirably played by Naomi Watts). She rejects him as a suitor, but becomes his devoted lifelong secretary, serving him until the very end.
Hoover becomes infatuated with young Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who played twins in “The Social Network). Hoover is taken by Tolson’s good looks, suave manner and taste in clothing. Tolson becomes the focal point of Hoover’s puzzling sexual ambiguity, although Eastwood carefully avoids any direct assertions. Soon enough Hoover and Tolson become inseparable, lunching every day at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, and going to the horse races together where Hoover, oddly enough (!) never loses money. The closeness develops into a relationship, but never explicitly romantic in the movie.
Hoover’s mother and Tolson are the only two people who get anywhere close to the inner Hoover. Helen Gandy is the loyal servant who knows him, but is carefully kept at arm’s length. Several reviewers have characterized the film as the humanization of Hoover. That’s up to the viewer to judge. It does well in showing as much of his inner character as possible. In a climactic scene Tolson, laid low by a stroke, delivers a scathing denouement, pointing out how Hoover altered history by lying about his claimed involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and numerous mobster arrests to construct a myth about Hoover the Hero. The movie depicts Hoover as devious about his own role as to apparently believe his tales of personal heroism.
Eastwood directed the film in his usual low-key way. He develops scenes patiently and uses lighting and music to bring out every scene. The make-up of each cast member is impeccable, and the portrayals are outstanding.