Movie Review: J. Edgar

“J. Edgar” | a film review by Gary Chew

Unlike John Waters, director Clint Eastwood doesn’t have a sense of humor that would allow him to title his latest motion picture, “Johnny and Clyde.” Appropriately, it’s “J. Edgar.” Mr. Hoover’s first name was John, but many close to him, except his mother, called him Johnny. The iconic and controversial Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had as his deputy, a close associate who Hoover hired early on at the FBI. His name was Clyde Tolson.

Now with that tacky joke behind us, here’s more on an interesting biopic that may raise a few eyebrows: a history-laden account of J. Edgar Hoover from the approximate time he was first hired by the Department of Justice until his death in 1972. Hoover served as Director of the FBI for life, being appointed in 1935 during the Roosevelt Administration as its first director. His tenure commenced with the Coolidge Administration’s 1924 appointment of him as the sixth Director of the Bureau of Investigation, forerunner to the FBI.

As Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio, seems omnipresent. I can hardly think of a scene that DiCaprio isn’t in, acting his heart out—always giving it, at least, 120%. Dame Judi Dench plays J. Edgar’s mother, Annie Hoover. Naomi Watts is Hoover’s Girl Friday, Helen Gandy and Armie Hammer, the great-grandson of the late business magnate, Armand Hammer, does the role of Clyde Tolson.

It’s almost as if all the people in the cinema are voyeurs watching a biopic, that neat, truncated Hollywood term for biographical motion picture. It seemed more pointed seeing one about J. Edgar Hoover, who’s private life was even more a hot topic than his public exploits fighting communists, labor unions, bank robbers, kidnappers, people of color, PRing the hell out of the FBI and keeping in tow more powerful people than he by maintaining his celebrated “File of Dirt” on them.

The list of rumors runs almost as long as the ones he ferreted out about his many adversaries, real and imagined. Was Hoover homosexual? Was he a cross-dresser? Did his have a long-running intimate relationship with Clyde Tolson? Was J. Edgar a racist? And on the other hand, did the first FBI boss have a secret lineage back to a black Mississippi family? I place all these sentences in the interrogative, since I’m no expert on Hoover, but do recall some of the whispers about him as I was growing up during the last half of his life.

His public life connected with such personalities as Emma Goldman, Bruno Hauptmann, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr, Charlies Lindberg, Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, Melvin Purvis, John Dillinger, Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy and other assorted heroes and anti heroes of America’s run through the first half, and well into the second, of the 20th century. And did I mention eight Presidents of the United States? Whether or not you’re okay with Hoover’s style, politics and tactics, that’s one awesome resumé.

One of the last persons on earth who could be considered homophobic is Clint Eastwood, despite his macho persona and “Dirty Harry” history. So I wasn’t surprised to find that “J. Edgar” is quite tender in scenes that depict the relationship between Hoover and Tolson. These moments are moving and will likely generate sympathy for Hoover as you watch him in anguish about his partner.

Moreover, Eastwood’s screenwriter, Dustin Lane Black, likely exerted a certain amount of script control over the private relationship of Hoover and Tolson. Black won an Oscar for his original script for the award-winning film, “Milk.” Born 1974 in Sacramento, Black was raised Mormon and has also had success as one of the writers for the well-received HBO series, “Big Love,” which chronicles the life of a contemporary polygamist family in Utah. Mr. Black is also an LBGT activist.

Briefly, “J. Edgar” caused me to suppress laughter that took its energy from my terribly off-center sense of humor. When DiCaprio, in character as Hoover, is in deep grief over the passing of his mother, Clint kicks in the cross-dressing scene with soft Eastwoodian music. When Hoover puts on his mother’s beads and slips into one of her dresses standing in front of a full-length mirror, the first thing that came to my head was Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho,” dispatching Janet Leigh and Martin Balsam.

Everyone remembers who Norman thought he was as he slipped into Slasher Mode in that unforgettable Hitchcock thriller. But the “J. Edgar” scene is played for somber, and decency demands acknowledging Hoover’s suffering for the loss of his mother and her death, as well; that despite Mrs. Hoover being, apparently, much the cause for her son’s paranoia, guilt and obsession to organize and control all that surrounded him.

For the most part, Eastwood walks softly but carries a big megaphone while seated in the director’s chair, except when the eighth US Commander-in-Chief shows up for the final act of those halcyon Hoover Years. That would be Christopher Shyer playing Richard M. Nixon. (The Nixonian voice is spot on.)

If you bring a youngster along to see “J. Edgar,” you might want to put cotton in his or her ears when Mr. Nixon comes on screen….to carry forward much of what Mr. Hoover had already been doing, politically, behind so many backs well before the Man from Whittier withdrew himself from being kicked around.

Nineteen Seventy-Three was the year that followed J. Edgar Hoover’s demise.

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Gary Chew
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