The F.B.I. (Love) Story
"What Determines a Man's Legacy is Sometimes That Which Isn't Seen"
J. Edgar Hoover ruled the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 45 years under the Department of Justice. Over the course of his tenure, he made the FBI his personal weapon in defending the nation from threats as he saw them, even as they changed form—from Bolshevik radicals to hayseed bootleggers and bank robbers to Communists to Civil Rights Activists to his very bosses. He did this unsubtly and unequivocally with press-trumpeted raids and whispered-about secret files that, if it didn't make him (as the phrase goes) "the most powerful man in the country," he was certainly the most feared. It was always assumed that Hoover had "the goods" on everyone, and guaranteed his long-held government post with weapons in manila files.
When he died (in office), Hoover's mug had the well-known face of a haggard bulldog—keeping secrets is something that can age you rapidly—and keeping secrets is something Hoover did best. Not only those of others, but his own. Rumors swirled about the nature of his relationship with FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson—that they were secretly gay lovers rather than "gentleman cops," that Hoover was a cross-dresser, and that the reason Hoover didn't pursue the gangsters of La Cosa Nostra in the '40's and '50's was because of compromising photographs in the hands of Meyer Lansky. Nothing has ever been confirmed. It's all just rumor, the smirking kind that the powerful get (but there's never any proof).
Which is why news of a Hoover bio-pic, written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Clint Eastwood seemed so intriguing. Eastwood isn't afraid to take chances, turning cliches on their ear and Black's clear-eyed script for Milk garnered an Oscar. Their film J. Edgar promised "red meat," of the kind that could be delightfully and salaciously chewed.
And the two men have taken chances...but not with the result you would think. Rather than being a rant or skreed, J. Edgar is actually a sympathetic look at the FBI director and his peccadilloes and shortcomings. There's nothing hysterical (save for one fist-fight that breaks out between Leonardo DiCaprio's Hoover and Armie Hammer's Tolson) in script or direction, but it offers a look at a severely closeted man who had to be in the times he lived and with the mantle he carried. Ambitious, yes. Paranoid, certainly. Vain and glory-hunting, without a doubt. Hoover craved the spotlight and his role in being "Head G-Man," while at the same time operating in the shadows, single-mindedly hoarding the secrets of others, while keeping his own in the height of ironies. At the same time that he espoused the Bureau ethic for red-blooded American males as agents, one wonders if it is done for appearances' sake, a beard that would mask his own leanings while also serving as a "hiding-in-plain-sight" revelation of his own taste in men.
Black and Eastwood conduct the story-telling in flashback, as Hoover in his latter years, decides to set the record straight, dictating his memoirs to an amusingly rotating number of agent-stenographers who disappear as soon as a point is questioned, or a weakness revealed. The story is a white-wash, reflecting the man's "official" view of the Bureau's history in a mix of incident and myth. At many times, J.Edgar is a bit reminiscent of Citizen Kane, with its fracturing point-of-view, shifting perspective, and ironic commentary on some of the incidents.
It also shares Kane's sense of the unattainable summation of a life. C.F. Kane's had little to do with "Rosebud," just as Hoover's gay leanings was a small part of his whole story. It began with a controlling mother (Judi Dench), determined to keep young John Edgar from becoming a drunk like his father. Groomed to become "the most powerful man in the country," Mother Hoover controls her son's life to make him the image of the perfect son, diction lessons to force past a stammer, impeccable grooming, and the enforcement of all of her prejudices. And the nullification of any behavior less than manly. He is made in the image of his Mother's "perfect son," even though that image may be completely counter to reality. It sets him on a lifelong course of fighting her battles, never really being his own man, as much as posing in the presentation he wanted to project. A performance. An act. Myth and lies.
It is a story soaked in ironies: the man who kept secrets on everybody, but the biggest being his own; the investigator who saw no harm in exposing other's private lives, while keeping an iron grip on his own; the policeman who targetted and made war on many enemies, the primary one being himself. Black and Eastwood present a case for sympathy, even empathy, for a man who shaped, and was shaped, by his times, who rose through the ranks of power in society, to not be shunned by it, and who searched for verifiable fact while living in denial, and closeted by the bureau of his own making.
J. Edgar is a Matinee.
* Not to mention that DiCaprio's "old-man" make-up makes him look more like the aged Charles Foster Kane than the jowly Hoover (still, it's better than the never convincing make-up that Hammer sports as an aging Tolson), and the shots of Hoover witnessing the Inaugural parades of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon are shot from the same angle as the "newsreel" shot of Kane in a balcony appearance with Adolph Hitler.