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"J. Edgar" Film Review

Amanda Martinez |
November 12, 2011 | 11:23 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

With all the hype surrounding "J. Edgar’s" potentially homosexual exploits, the movie ran the risk of being overshadowed by an “Is he, or isn’t he?” moniker

J. Edgar movie poster
J. Edgar movie poster
long before the trailer even hit the Internet.

For viewers aching to better grasp the sexual orientation of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), screenwriter Dustin Lance Black leaves the answer as decidedly undefined.  Black, who won the Academy Award for screenwriting "Milk," could have easily stretched his creative liberties to paint a far more incriminating picture of Hoover’s intimate relationship with associate director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer of "The Social Network").  Instead, Black chooses to focus on Hoover’s exhaustive obsession with power and public perception, the result of which feeds and manipulates the relationship with Tolson.  

Viewers can scrutinize the bond between the two, depicted handholding at times and repeatedly vacationing together, but are ultimately left to decide for themselves the nature of the relationship.  Black’s dialogue treads lightly over the subject, allowing DiCaprio and Hammer to create their own understanding of the relationship by insinuation and suggestion.  Despite the much-hyped kiss between the pair, it is in the subtle, everyday interactions between Hoover and Tolson that narrow in on the blurred portrait of a closeted homosexual.  Scenes when Tolson straightens the collar on Hoover’s suit and later when Hoover shares a handkerchief with the aged Tolson, become the film’s most intimate and revealing moments.

The real J. Edgar Hoover faced an equal level of scrutiny throughout his career.  The man who helped found the FBI ran the Bureau from 1924 until 1972, through nine presidencies, with an unparalleled power.   Hoover’s career focused on crucifying American gangsters and domestic Communism, for which he was often criticized as exceeding the jurisdiction of the FBI. 

Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Black chronicle Hoover’s rise to power and his heavy-handed influence in a nonlinear sequence.  The duo tackle Hoover’s history from all angles, exploring his interdependent relationship with his mother, Annie Hoover (Judi Dench), as well as his insistence on loyalty, played out by the relationship with lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts).  Judi Dench is electrifying in her role as Annie, quietly powerful but with a bite that sharply controls and dictates her son’s every move and action.  Her scenes with DiCaprio reveal an unsettling and disturbing interaction between the two.  DiCaprio’s expressions bare both an understanding and an inner turmoil with the responsibility placed on him by his mother to “restore the family back to its former glory.” 

Insights into the upbringing of the American legend feed into every decision and event in Hoover’s long career. A man to be admired and feared, the obsession with controlling the image of himself and the Bureau he helped create consumes him.  The audience is shown a man who ensured his agents were educated and well groomed, so not to embarrass him or the agency.  On multiple occasions Hoover is willing to distort and control the image of the agency in the media to benefit the greater image of the FBI.

For every one of Hoover’s greatest achievements, there exists a controversy to shift the balance back.  The film praises Hoover for his contributions to the organization of the Library of Congress, the practice of centralizing fingerprinting, and his hand in creating forensic labs to aid in investigations.

In between these triumphs, the film indicts Hoover by chronicling some of his biggest controversies.  The script reveals Hoover for the fraud he his in taking undue credit for the capture and kill of gangster John Dillinger, and in his role in solving the Lindbergh kidnapping case.  Over decades, Hoover’s abuse of power knows no boundaries, going as far to keep secret files on America’s own political figureheads to strong hand and blackmail his way into getting what he wants.

DiCaprio nails Hoover—the actor is calculating, precise in his portrayal of a man who plays even the most revered political figures like pawns.  He owns Hoover’s character, flaws and all, down to the distinctive style of speech and peculiar mannerisms. 

Hammer as Hoover’s number two man, radiates even through layers of lifeless and clunky prosthetics.  The actor’s portrayal shows a man whose intelligence understands Hoover’s unrelenting desire to control everything around him, and accepts him regardless.  The audience rarely sees Tolson in scenes without Hoover, leaving Hammer’s reactions to relay more than ever the greater truths Hoover is blind to see.

These truths are what Eastwood leaves the audience with by the end of the film.  Hoover, the ultimate secret keeper, has his own indiscretions ripped wide open at the hands of Eastwood, who masterfully unravels the man who ruled America for nearly half a decade. 

Reach staff reporter Amanda Martinez here.

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