J. Edgar – The Movie

I saw this yesterday.  Clint Eastwood and Dustin Lance Black have collaborated to provide a dramatization of the life of J. Edgar Hoover, the long-serving Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an autonomous agency within the Justice Department that was formed early in the 20th century to investigate potential violations of federal laws and gradually expanded its authority to become a very active, full-scale federal law enforcement agency, akin to a federal police force, under Hoover's dogged leadership.

Hoover is a bit of a mysterious character.  He was very secretive about his private life, living in his mother's home, unmarried, suspiciously close to his younger, handsome second-in-command at the FBI, Clyde Tolson, with whom he took all his vacations and holidays and who was at his right arm most of the time in public and in the office.  Some biographers have suggested a homosexual relationship between the two men, and cite stories of Hoover cross-dressing – seemingly out of character with his tough-guy public persona.

Black and Eastwood have run with the rumors and hints, constructing an intimate relationship between Hoover and Tolson stretching over decades.  Although they don't depict overt sexual conduct, there are a few depictions of physical intimacy and certainly a strong suggestion that Tolson and Hoover were smitten with each other from first meeting and – barring a few lover's spats along the way – until the day of Hoover's death, but that Hoover was much less comfortable with this than Tolson and could not really admit, either to himself or others, his true sexual nature.  Leonardo di Caprio as Hoover and Armie Hammer as Tolson both provide excellent performances that are compromised, to some extent, by the awkward structure of the script and the overly effusive ministrations of the make-up department in depicting the aging men.  Indeed, the depiction of Tolson in old age looks more like a vampire or Frankenstein monster than a human being, and Hoover's make-up is also a bit too overdone for comfort.  In short, they look a bit fake. 

But setting that apart, the story is fascinating and well-acted by all concerned.  The framing device is Hoover in old age dictating memoirs of "his side of the story" to a series of attractive young male FBI agents, with frequent lengthy flashbacks illustrating the events he is talking about.  It becomes clear over the course of the movie that these are not meant to be factual, biographical descriptions, but rather, quite literally, "Hoover's version" of what happened. For anybody who hasn't gotten the point, Tolson makes it clear in the final scene with Hoover where he mentions having read the memoir typescript and finding it quite distorted to the point of fiction. 

So, nobody should take this movie as an attempt to provide a factual depiction of Hoover's career.  Rather, it is a story of relationships — Hoover and Tolson, Hoover and Gandy, the young woman to whom he makes a misguided marriage proposal on their third date and then appoints as his personal secretary, a role she serves throughout his career as portrayed wonderfully by Naomi Watts, Hoover and his mother, brilliantly portrayed by Judi Dench.  This is psychodrama, this is imaginative history (almost all the most interesting scenes are based largely on surmise), and this is a brilliant recreation of periods and places.  I was gripped throughout, even when I found it difficult to suspend disbelief.

Reading a good bio of Hoover would make a nice corrective, so I may seek one out.

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