Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer
US theatrical: 9 Nov 2011 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 20 Jan 2012 (General release)
“You will rise to become the most powerful man in the country,” asserts Annie Hoover (Judi Dench). Her son, J. Edgar (Leonardo DiCaprio), stands in shadows in their Washington DC sitting room. He’s got a new job, he tells her, at a new federal agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And he means to make his mother proud.
J. Edgar goes on to trace Hoover’s rise, in particular, his directorship of the FBI from 1935 until his death in 1972, framed as his dedication to crime-fighting. As a young man, working as a Library of Congress cataloguer, he’s inspired by the Dewey Decimal system (an idea dramatized in the film when he takes his future secretary-for-life Helen Gandy [Naomi Watts] to the LC on a date, thrilled to show her how quickly he can access information) and goes on to promote the Bureau’s use of fingerprints, firearms identifications, and forensics; insists the FBI have a lab on its premises and employ scientific experts to sift through evidence gathered from crime scenes. All of these efforts are forward-looking, suggesting his investment in advancing technologies, a certain kind of faith in the future.
And yet, Clint Eastwood’s film submits, Hoover was also always haunted by history. Most plainly, this is visible in J. Edgar‘s structure, which cuts from present to past and back again, moments in time marked by changing vehicles, dress, and heavy (sometimes distracting) makeup. The film opens with Hoover looking back, instructing a young assistant who’s taking notes, “It’s time this generation learns my side of the story,” a side where villains and heroes are clearly differentiated.
As he dictates his story, the film reintroduces Hoover, circa 1919, wearing a newsboy’s cap and riding a bike to work, his “eyes opened” by an act of domestic terror, the bombing of the home of attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson). Convinced that he needs to crush the radical communists at fault, he embarks on a lifelong endeavor, to impose order even if it means using means outside the letter of the law.
This means, when he’s working as a special assistant to Palmer, that he gathers evidence against the anarchist Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht), and testified at a hearing to have her deported in 1919; his thinking then informed his thinking later, that laws must allow enforcement officers to respond to anyone who might “become a threat later”: when he begins sending his FBI agents on similar assignments, one points out the illogic of this (“There’s no proof of a crime”), as the film alludes here, not so subtly, to today’s fear and racism regarding “illegal aliens.”
The film illustrates Hoover’s prescience regarding the science of crime-solving in his approach to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Named the director of the mostly toothless Bureau in 1924, he arrives at the Lindbergh home to find a crew of inept local cops tramping all over the crime scene, opening ridiculing his idea that footprints or the wood in the ladder used to access the bedroom window might yield helpful information.
Hoover’s methods help to solve the famous case (too late to save the baby), and he presses Congress for more power for the FBI. By 1935, the Bureau is newly empowered to step into what had been the states’ province of law enforcement, complete with weapons and the authority to make arrests. According to this movie, Hoover is at least partly inspired by movies: he sees how James Cagney is celebrated in movies like The Public Enemy and then, when FBI agents start shooting guns and taking down gangsters, Warner Bros. begins producing movies like G-Men, where Cagney plays a law enforcement officer—with guns blazing.
But even as the Bureau gains a public image, Hoover devises a secret power, namely, the files he and Helen Gandy hide away, full of information on all his adversaries and potential adversaries. These include photos and documents and audio recordings, including those famous tapes of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.‘s sexual encounters. (Again, the film dramatizes the threats Hoover managed in a single moment, a highly charged encounter between Hoover and Robert Kennedy [Jeffrey Donovan], whose cocky demeanor shifts quickly to resentful compliance when Hoover reveals the existence of the tape.)
These secrets pale when compared to Hoover’s own. J. Edgar assumes the story that’s long circulated, that Hoover and his Associate Director, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) were life partners. They travel together and work on cases together, with Tolson a bit more athletic and apparently able to shoot at criminals than Hoover. As much as he wants to emulate Cagney, he appears in a couple of FBI team arrests to be too anxious to use his weapon. This translates—awkwardly and obviously—to his relationship with Tolson as well. When, in a fictionalized scene, Clyde expresses his affection, Hoover resists violently. They end up wrestling and flailing, Hoover horrified and horrifying at once.
For all the commotion and ugliness of this scene, the film yet makes Hoover seem at least partly sympathetic—by making it mom’s fault. As much as she pushes him as a young man, as much as she seems proud of his professional achievements in Washington, she remains monstrous when it comes to her son’s personal shortcomings. She picks on (and so ignites) his stuttering (“Be my little speedy,” she instructs, as he recites language patterns), and she damns his possible homosexuality, behavior that makes him “a woman.” In the film’s most appalling scene—again, fictionalized—he dons a necklace and a woman’s dress, then collapses. The shadows close in, the camera pulls out, and Hoover sobs. If he abused his power and corrupted his office, Hoover is still a victim—of his terrible mother.