Pros: Delicate, penetrating, great dissection of the most compelling figures of the last century.
Cons: The slow pace may bore some, others will miss the subtler elements.
J. Edgar (2011) Directed by Clint Eastwood
“I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.”—Annie Hoover
Get ready for a contrarian review of J. Edgar. Many critics have accused it of being muddled, off message, lumpy, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of him as an idiotically un-selfaware little man. One line I particularly liked was where someone said that when Leonardo screwed his eyes up, he didn’t look mean, he looked frightened. And I will say each of these positions have merit….
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was an ambitious young man, attached to the Justice Department. It is kind of hard to understand the times, because they were defined in retrospect by lacks that we today take for granted. Anarchists and Bank Robbers roamed the land with impunity, because there was no Federal jurisdiction capable of handling them. A state’s power ended at the border, and the crooks knew this (I live in Texarkana, a twin city straddling two states. It’s history is rife with runs for the border.) All you had to do when things got hot was move down the road. But when Hoover’s boss, Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) was bombed by anarchists, Hoover knew what was wrong with the system, and how to fix it.
J. Edgar was gifted with a keen mind, a penchant for organization, and a spark of innovation. As he climbed through the ranks, he looked at what needed doing, who had the power to allow him to do it, and how to manipulate them. Thus, his exceedingly clever ploy of deporting Anarchist Leader Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht) he got the keys to the Kingdom. He was chosen to head the newly formed Bureau of Investigation. And he knew what he wanted to make it, and how to get there.
There were three people that influenced J. Edgar; the first was his mother, Anne (Dame Judie Dench). A towering pillar of will and beliefs in a short little form, she shaped her son. Though the movie reveals these things gradually, it is obvious that J. Edgar had many issues of shame; he was a stutterer. His rapid clipped speech was a coping mechanism. It earned him the nickname, Speedy. His father was a victim of dementia. And J. Edgar was not socially adept. Nor was he particularly interested in girls. But in the words of his mother, “I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.”
The second person was Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). A secretary in the Justice Department, J. Edgar would have married her. But Gandy had ideas of her own; she was married to her job. So in the next best thing, Hoover hired her as his private secretary. It was a marriage that lasted for his entire life.
The third person was an unlikely fellow, a law student named Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Perhaps delicately described as “a real flamer” there was nonetheless something about him that caught Hoover’s eye. (Probably the heat of those flames.)
With those three people providing every ounce of social/emotional support Hoover got, he was free to turn everything he had into the Bureau. And that is what he did. Hoover was obsessed with forensic science, then in its infancy. He wanted a fingerprint depository. He wanted a central office where patterns across state lines could be discerned. And he got it too, from an unlikely source.
When Charles Lindberg’s baby was kidnapped, it gave J. Edgar the chance to prove what his Bureau could do. Converting the smoking lounge into a laboratory, he set Arthur Koelher (Stephen Root) to work on the one piece of physical evidence they had; the homemade ladder. So Koelher was nuttier than squirrel poo; that hardly mattered. The fact was he got results, and his work led them to Bruno Hauptmann (Damon Herriman) the kidnapper.
Success garnered support, support he garnered into power. It took some effort, but he eventually got his men armed, and with a federal mandate to make arrests. Soon, they were operating to quell the plague of Bank Robbers the depression had unleashed on the nation. And Hoover never stopped; every advancement he got, he pushed for another, until he built the FBI of today.
And of course, he used that power, and he abused that power. He blackmailed Attorney Generals, and Presidents. He wire taped, he spied, he gathered info, and he kept secret files. Knowledge is power, and he spent his entire life gathering it.
Now, to where the movie is supposed to have failed. J. Edgar Hoover was a name that struck terror in people’s hearts. If you think “Mike Wallace is outside, and he and his camera crew want to talk to you” scared people, the words, “J. Edgar Hoover has a file on you” were infinitely worse. Did he abuse his power? Hell yes! Did his work set us up for the erosion of civil liberties we have experienced since 9-11? Certainly. But what Clint Eastwood chose to do was to look at the man, not his larger context. This is the story of J. Edgar, not Hoover Takes Over America to Save America.
And as a man, he has given us insight, clear insight, into what shaped this arguably most powerful man in the world.
Shame was part of it. His father was crazy. You don’t see him for but a moment, but it is telling enough. The nickname Speedy; earned because his stuttering demanded he spit the words out rapid fire, not giving himself time to pause or stutter. And his mother’s lovely story about Daffy, the little boy who was caught cross-dressing and was made to stand out in front of the school in a hoop dress and bonnet. He committed suicide six weeks later. And is where the quote comes from; Daffy is short for daffodil.
Yet Edgar was gay. And he loved Clyde with every fiber. Did they ever have sex? The movie does not answer that question for us. It isn’t known. It is possible that J. Edgar Hoover lived and died a virgin. But that did not mean he did not have a great and powerful love. Personally, I think these two confirmed bachelors were lovers. The point was, we don’t know for sure, and the movie doesn’t say so explicitly. It sticks with what we do know; they loved each other.
Envy was another part of it. Watch the fireplace in Robert Kennedy’s office. Then watch for it again; you will see it, in Hoover’s office. Hoover was also envious of his own men. Agent Purvis killed John Dillinger, and Hoover never forgave him. His biography claims many arrests that were actually made by his men.
Lust was a tricky part. Women made him nervous. He didn’t like feeling nervous. He loved Clyde Tolson. Did they ever act on that? I hope so.
Pride was another part of it. J. Edgar had a lot to be proud of. His filing system revolutionized the Library of Congress. He built the FBI from the ground up, and despite tremendous odds, and with powerful enemies seeking to thwart him. But his wounded pride could be hideous. And that leads to….
Wrath. If you ever got crosswise of J. Edgar, he would fix you. Oh, he would wait his time, but his vindictive streak was a mile wide. He was paraniod, mendacious and ruthless.
All of this Eastwood reveals with surprising delicacy. It is not overt. You have to look for most of it. And here’s the rub…that is exactly how it was in real life. Life is not neat; it doesn’t lay out the patterns for you. You have to look for them. In a story, it’s all very clear, neatly done, maybe a flashback to set the scene, but the psychology is spoon fed you. Here, it happens instead. You pick up on it, or you don’t.
And to the reviewer who said when Leonardo screwed up his eyes, it didn’t make J. Edgar look angry, it made him look scared, that might be the best part of acting in the entire piece, because fear is what drove J.Edgar. He harnessed his fear, suppressed it, and used that energy to drive him towards his goals.
Eastwood tells the story very effectively. His use of time jumps only serves the story of J. Edgar’s development. Some say it’s jumpy or lumpy, but considering the goal, it is perfect. His cinematography is moving, well balanced, and never detracts from the players.
There are allegations that the various presidents (and Bobby Kennedy, played by Jeffrey Donovan) were mere caricatures, small throw away roles woefully underutilized. That would only be true if they played any importance at all. They didn’t. We know how Hoover interacted with Presidents; he tolerated them, and if they got troublesome, he blackmailed them. The important part here is for you to realize just who J. Edgar thought ran things.
It is ultimately a story about a man. In many ways a great man, in many ways a great monster, and also, at the same time, a sad little man. That is the story Eastwood and Black set out to tell. And they did it very well.
J. Edgar ***The Curiosity of Chance ***Christopher and His Kind ***The Lair Season I***The Raven (2007)***The Wedding Banquet***The Adonis Factor ***The Business of Fancy Dancing***Flexing With Monty***Black Swan***Strapped ***Is It Just Me? ***Fish Out of Water***Right By Me ***Coffee Date ***Naked Boys Singing! ***I Love You Phillip Morris ***Gone, But Not Forgotten ***Chris and Don: A Love Story ***For The Bible Tells Me So ***Pornography: A Thriller ***Shock to the System: A Donald Strachey Mystery ***Soldier's Girl ***Caravaggio ***Plan B ***On the Other Hand, Death: A Donald Strachey Mystery ***Howl***Third Man Out: A Donald Strachey Mystery ***The Consequences ***Humpday***Fixing Frank***C.R.A.Z.Y. ***Ice Blues: A Donald Strachey Mystery***La Mission***Burnt Money***8: The Mormon Propo$ition***In The Flesh***The Sensei***The 24th Day***Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon***ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction***East Side Story***Dorian Blues***Creatures From the Pink Lagoon***Satyricon***Ice Men***Richard O'Briens Rocky Horror Tribute Show***Prom Queen***The Kids are All Right***Between Love and Goodbye***The Mudge Boy***That Man: Peter Berlin***A Single Man***Almost Normal***Outing Riley***Outrage!***Law of Desire***Love is the Devil***Cowboy Junction***Horror in the Wind***Bedrooms and Hallways***Cut Sleeve Boys***Big Eden***For A Lost Soldier***Midnight Cowboy***Redwoods***The Massuer***Boy Culture***Breakfast With Scot***The Fluffer***Flesh***Little Ashes***L.I.E. ***Dorian Gray***9 Dead Gay Guys***Shank***I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry***Beautiful Boxer***Bangkok Love Story***Schoolboy Crush***Shelter***Back Soon***Dog Tags***Theft***The Mulligans***The Velvet Goldmine***Swashbuckler***Smoke Signals
***C'Thulhu***Milk***The Picture of Dorian Gray***Brideshead Revisited***Notes on a Scandal***RocknRolla***Mamma Mia!
***Priscillia: Queen of the Desert***The History Boys***Brokeback Mountain***The Broken Hearts Club*** Yaji and Kita: Midnight Pilgrims ***Surge of Power ***In & Out ***Mambo Italiano ***Touch of Pink ***To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar ***Wolves of Kromer ***Rocky Horror Picture Show ***Taboo ***Deathtrap
Gay Themed Series:
The Lair: Season I
The Lair: Season II
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Carnivale Season One
Carnivale Season Two
Rome Season One
Rome Season Two
True Blood: Season Two
True Blood: Season Three
The Book of Daniel: The Complete Series
Torchwood: Miracle Day
Torchwood: Children of Earth
Torchwood: Season Two
Torchwood: Season One
Pirate's Booty***Sensitive Pornograph***Loveless: The Complete Series***Loveless: Hope on the Run***Loveless: Soul of Chains***Loveless: Lost and Found***Embracing Love: A Cicada in Winter***Embracing Love: Cherished Spring ***Stonewall & Riot***Drawn Together Movie: The Movie***Drawn Together: Season 2***Drawn Together: Season 3