Today: April 18, 2024
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J Edgar

Early on in J.Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s sumptuous, ambitious bio-pic of one of 20th century America’s most powerful and controversial figures, while dictating his memoirs to a junior FBI agent (Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass, Ed Westwick), the elderly J.Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) says: “What’s critical at this moment is that we re-clarify the difference between villain and hero.”

Early on in
J.Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s sumptuous, ambitious bio-pic of one of 20th
century America’s most powerful and controversial figures, while dictating his
memoirs to a junior FBI agent (Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass, Ed Westwick), the
elderly J.Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) says: “What’s critical at this
moment is that we re-clarify the
difference between villain and hero.”

He’s reminiscing about his old boss, former US Attorney General A.
Mitchell Palmer, but there lies the nub of Eastwood’s film which casts Hoover
as tragic Shakespearean anti-hero; a well-intentioned man perverted and
consumed by hubris and paranoia.

Told mostly in flashback and spanning 50 years, J.Edgar charts
Hoover’s career from 1919 to his death in 1972 through his relationships with
the three most important people in his life; his long-suffering, intensely
loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his devoted colleague and
companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and his domineering mother Anna (Judi
Dench
).

A tireless champion of the scientific investigation of crime, the young
Hoover begins his career battling anarchists and hunting communists in the
aftermath of the Great War. A
shrewd political operator, he manoeuvers himself into the position of Acting
Head of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation (later the Federal Bureau of
Investigation) which he rules like as his own personal fiefdom, building it
into the monolithic structure it is today with the aid of Gandy and Tolson. His pursuit of the bank robbing outlaw
folk heroes of the Great Depression (Pretty Boy Floyd, Alvin Karpis, John
Dillinger) wins him headlines, coining phrases like “public enemies” and
“G-man,” while the investigation of the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh
Baby pioneers early forensic techniques.
But behind the public perception of the dogged crime fighter lies a man
riddled with insecurities, propped up by his Lady Macbeth-esque mother who
poisons both his mind and his sexuality, sowing the seeds of the megalomaniac
voyeur who would rise to become arguably the most powerful man in America,
blackmailing and bullying presidents, politicians and public figures while
terrorising the Left.

A handsome bio-pic that’s as much a study of the delicate and perceptive
nature of truth, J.Edgar, like Flags Of Our Fathers before it,
sees Eastwood deconstructing the myths that modern America is built on. The four decades since his death has
seen a major revision of Hoover’s image, the rumour and innuendo that dogged
him (his alleged transvestitism and homosexuality, his tyrannical excesses, his
voyeurism), accepted as fact.
You’d be forgiven then for assuming that J.Edgar will be a
salacious exposé of the man’s personal foibles and
public hypocrisy. But what
Eastwood and Milk writer Dustin Lance Black have attempted is
something more interesting: a genius of spin and media manipulation, they’ve
allowed Hoover to tell his own story as
he remembers it
complete with inconsistencies, half-truths and Hoover’s
unshakeable conviction.

So we get a potted history of his life and triumphs, his forging of the
FBI, his lifelong crusade against Communism, while skating over entire decades
(the Second World War and the McCarthy witch hunts are curiously absent, though
McCarthy at least warrants a dismissive mention), reality only occasionally
intruding on Hoover’s unreliable narrative as in his dealings with the Kennedys
and Martin Luther King or when the elderly Tolson points out that the shameless
self-publicist never actually made the many arrests he took credit for, never
met the principals of some of his biggest cases, that his life is a lie.

The treatment of Hoover’s sexuality, while speculative, is
arresting. Lifelong bachelors who
lived their lives in each other pockets, Hoover and Tolson have long been
assumed lovers. They ate lunch and
dinner together every day, spent all their free time with one another,
vacationed together and were always seen together publicly. With the exception of a hotel room spat
that gets a bit Brokeback, Eastwood and Black have chosen to make their
love unrequited, their attraction unconsummated, due in large part to the
neuroses imprinted by Hoover’s mother.
In perhaps the most devastating scene of the film, noticing the palpable
attraction between Hoover and Tolson, Hoover’s mother icily informs her son
“I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil.” For Eastwood and Black, the sublimation of Hoover’s natural
desires is what comes to drive the darker aspects of his nature; his hypocrisy,
his vindictiveness.

As ever Eastwood’s direction is powerfully, beautifully understated. DiCaprio gives a barnstorming,
charismatic performance of an uncharismatic demagogue, essaying a complex,
sympathetic Hoover who’s never actually likable. As his mother, Judi Dench is both terrifying and
seductive. If Lady Macbeth hadn’t
been barren… Naomi Watts and Armie
Hammer lend solid support as Gandy and Tolson respectively in what at first
appears to be underwritten roles but this is Hoover’s story, this is how he
remembers it. As shrewd a judge of
personal weakness as he may have been, it’s clear that Hoover never really knew
the two people in his life who were closest to him. They remain enigmas to him because he can’t understand why
they love him, why he commands their loyalty. Watts beautifully transforms from a young, idealistic girl
to a weary, disillusioned woman, disappointed by but still loyal to the man to
whom she’s devoted her life.
Hammer (ill-served by his old man make-up) meanwhile is the closest
thing to a moral centre to the film.
He alone stands up to Hoover, understands him, loves him but isn’t
blinded by his love.

An intricate, complex character study that ultimately bites off more than
it can easily chew, Eastwood’s J.Edgar is bold, ambitious movie making.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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