Reviews

Secrets and Lies: 'J. Edgar' Explores the Duality of Hoover and the FBI

Revealing the nature of secrets, the power they—and those who keep them—generate, and the tragedy of good intentions gone horribly awry, whether in public or private, makes J. Edgar a powerful film.


J. Edgar

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench
Distributor: Warner H
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-02-21

The DVD/Blu-ray box cover for J. Edgar shows an angry Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio). Perhaps the cover art reflects the emotion fueling not only the increasingly self-righteous FBI director, but also DiCaprio’s fans, who believe he was robbed of an Oscar nomination. Indeed, DiCaprio’s performance captures the sincerity and public-mindedness of young Edgar as well as the flinty paranoia of Hoover’s old age. For nearly 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover created, shaped, and wielded an impressive amount of political power in the FBI, but the man’s intense focus on those who would harm Americans also left him blind to his own weaknesses.

Hoover only permits three people to influence him: his beloved mother (played by Judi Dench), long-time secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and close friend and fellow FBI agent Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Each shapes Hoover into the man who will be able to cow presidents with the information he gathers. In the special feature documentary, J. Edgar Hoover: The Most Powerful Man in America, both Hoover and Colson are compared to a computer because of their intelligence but, more importantly, because of their ability to collect, organize, and use information to their advantage.

Hoover, as the film and documentary remind audiences, did more than establish the FBI. Inspired by the Library of Congress system of cataloging information, he devised a similar method for the FBI to catalog and quickly retrieve information about criminals or possible subversives. He introduced new technology, such as fingerprinting, into the Bureau’s crime-solving methods. In short, he revolutionized American criminology.

With attractive, charismatic DiCaprio in this role, audiences can easily understand Hoover’s early celebrity. He enjoyed being around famous people, especially actors. Although the film only mentions Dorothy Lamour as a potential Mrs. Hoover, the documentary lists a few other '30s starlets who dated the FBI director.

Hoover knew how to gain media attention, in part through high-profile appearances with celebrities, but he also used everything from comic books to newsreels in order to turn the public’s fascination with Dillinger and other criminals into admiration for the G-men who captured or killed them. The film shows Hoover telling female fans, who happen to be famous themselves, exciting tales of how he fights crime. Hoover devised a strict code of behavior for his agents, one he publicly endeavored to uphold. Everything he did was for the FBI, despite any personal consequences. Because of the FBI director’s talent for manipulating information, it's not surprising that James Cagney, in 1931 famous for playing The Public Enemy, by 1935 had switched to the public role model in G-Men.

Dustin Lance Black’s script emphasizes the duality between Hoover’s public and private lives, which also reflects the hypocrisy and secrets of other government officials. Although the film seems like a true biopic, so little is known about Hoover’s life away from the FBI that what is portrayed on screen might be fact or fiction. Director Clint Eastwood notes that Hoover was a “mystery man” and indicates that Colson and Hoover were close friends and colleagues married to their work—end of personal story. Black posits that the facts that Hoover and Colson ate dinner together every night, vacationed together every year, and, after Hoover’s death, Colson moved into Hoover’s house, which he had inherited, reveal a much more intimate relationship.

The film shows that Hoover succeeds so effectively at manipulating others because he understands their dark secrets. Only someone who hides a secret of his own could understand such power. Public evidence of Hoover’s sexual orientation would destroy his career—and possibly the FBI he built. Hoover would never let that happen.

J. Edgar acknowledges the rumors surrounding Hoover, including one that he enjoyed wearing women’s clothing. In one scene, Hoover, distraught over his mother’s death, dons her dress and rosary and stares at himself in a mirror. He crumples, breaking the rosary and scattering beads on the floor, as he repeats her mantra for him to “stay strong”. Instead of the cross-dressing rumor being turned into something voyeuristic or prurient, the scene is poignant and well illustrates both Hoover’s mother’s influence over him and his questions about his sexual orientation, especially in light of the faith in which he was raised.

That orientation is discreetly shown but never denied throughout the film. Colson, the only one who confronts Hoover about personal failings, reminds Edgar that he has exaggerated his heroic role in the FBI for so long that he has come to believe his lies. The same is true of his heterosexuality. He might lie to himself about his love for Colson, but the emotion is still there. Revealing the nature of secrets, the power they—and those who keep them—generate, and the tragedy of good intentions gone horribly awry, whether in public or private, makes J. Edgar a powerful film.

It also has an intriguing marketing strategy that encourages more people to view the film. The Blu-ray/DVD combination is becoming more common and, in this, the J. Edgar disc set is typical. The DVD contains only the film, with the well-made documentary added to the Blu-ray disc. The set further includes a code and instructions to download the movie to a computer and compatible Android, iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. The code is good up to two years from the set’s release date and allows audiences to watch J. Edgar on their favorite devices.

However audiences choose to watch J. Edgar, they will question the man’s true nature. Is Hoover the brilliant forensic scientist who revolutionizes American crime fighting or the dictator who blackmails presidents and crosses ethical and legal lines? Is he a callous lover who casually tells Colson that he plans to marry Lamour, or is the truth portrayed at the end of the scene, when an anguished Edgar sobs “I love you” after Colson has left? Eastwood lets audiences decide what to believe, but he does so with beautifully framed shots, richly detailed costumes and sets, and a hesitant piano-based score that he wrote himself.

In the end, audiences may be left with one question: Who really deserved an Oscar as best actor—Leonardo DiCaprio or J. Edgar Hoover?

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