It struck me as I was watching J. Edgar that as much as I enjoy James Ellroy’s work and how funny I find his depiction of Hoover in his Blood’s a Rover, it actually is a really cartoony version of the guy. Ellroy kinda does that a lot, and that’s fine, as not only do I like cartoons a lot, it was also Ellroy’s mission in his “Underworld U.S.A.” trilogy to deflate the images of these men that have defined 20th century American history. Clint Eastwood’s film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, also seeks to do this, but in a much more subtle way, which also still ends up (in my eyes, anyway) severely discrediting the man who created the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
I’m not a big fan of J. Edgar Hoover, as I said about a month ago when I wrote about the trailer for this here flick. But I was (and am) still very much for giving the man a fair shake. And the way Eastwood and DiCaprio depict him is just that: whatever his flaws, the man was still human. The real problem is that the man’s flaws left our society and government vulnerable to his whims. I’m still very much of the opinion that Hoover was pretty much a raging fascist, but it is still possible for me to have sympathy even for a fascist. Because, y’know, I’m all deep like that.
Hypocrisy is the name of Hoover’s game. Near the end of the film, Hoover is reflecting back on his life and career and asks of himself, “Do I kill everything I love?” A bit melodramatic, true, but it does underscore how his own love for this country drove him to so violently throttle the freedoms he had meant to protect. In the 1920s, Hoover saw the threat of anarchy and communism (always pronounced, of course, as “comma-nism) as a very real and physical threat to American citizens. Hoover worked swiftly to deport Emma Goldman, a known anarchist and agitator, and succeeded, not through due process, however, but through political machinations.
By the time of the Great Depression, Hoover had set up his Bureau of Investigation wherein he was answerable only to the United States Attorney General. But of course, Hoover could not even trust his own bosses, and amassed over his career a secret file on just about anyone of interest: Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoover effectively blackmailed whomever he could in order to keep his position as the number-one lawman in the country. Again, due process be damned–the law does not apply to those who enforce it. And again we see Hoover strangle that much more freedom out of the American citizenry.
Hoover’s own public image and the importance he placed on it particularly damns him. His transgressions of the law aside, the guy was as two-faced as anyone, and certainly not operating on any higher moral ground than anybody else. In order to combat the public perception that he was just some pencil-pusher, Hoover began to go out on raids during the Wild West period of bank-robbery in the 1930s in order to prove himself as G-Man #1. However, it was all public relations: the headline-grabbing arrests of Richard Bruno Hauptmann and “Machine Gun” Kelly were falsely credited to Hoover, it turns out. By the time Hoover had made a name for himself, he was more interested in keeping it untarnished than he was in actually doing his job.
And of course, Hoover’s purported homosexuality comes into play here, as well. As I expected, Eastwood handles this subject fairly deftly. The depiction of the relationship between Hoover and his life-long colleague and friend, Clyde Tolson, is handled with care, though Eastwood does indulge in a pretty over-dramatic scene between the two when they confront their physical feelings for each other. It would have been nice had this been handled a little more carefully, for a super over-the-top scene in any movie is likely to yank the viewer out of the reality of a film, and in a case like this, where it had to be purely conjectural (if Hoover and Tolson really did fist-fight and then kiss, they sure as hell wouldn’t have told anyone about it), keeping the audience in the moment is crucial. As it is, I became very aware that I was watching a drama instead being immersed in the story of a man’s life.
Generally, though, Eastwood’s direction is very competent, and yet it is still Leonardo DiCaprio who brings this movie home. Since J. Edgar so desperately wanted to put across the man’s story without succumbing to gross speculation about his inner feelings (difficult to do with anybody, much less Hoover in particular), the film needed a star who could handle that level of character without chewing the scenery. And I might not have been completely convinced DiCaprio could have handled it before, but I sure as hell am now. Even as much as I love The Departed, I still feel ol’ Leo might have indulged a bit with the high emotions there. Not so in this flick. To play one of the most personally repressed men in history requires an actor who can convey emotion and personal motivation without resorting to caricature. And DiCaprio most certainly does that here, rendering him (for me, anyway) the only real reason to see this movie. Everything else about the film is effective–the story, the direction, the make-up, etc.–but DiCaprio’s performance goes beyond that to become affecting. Definitely the guy’s finest work of late.
So, all in all, J. Edgar is pretty much a must-see flick if you’re at all into true crime and/or 20th century history. I highly doubt that the director or the picture itself will rack up a ton of Oscar nods, but if DiCaprio doesn’t get a nomination for Best Actor, that will truly be a crime.