Greetings again from the darkness. The best place to start with this one is by saying what it isn’t. It is not a documentary. It is not a very detailed history lesson. It is not the best biography of the man. It is not a behind-the-scenes of the FBI. What it is … another piece of quality filmmaking from Clint Eastwood. It’s an overview of J. Edgar Hoover and his nearly 50 years of civil service under 8 U.S. Presidents.
The screenplay is from Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the script for Milk, based on the story of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn). Clearly, Eastwood and Black had no interest in setting forth an historical drama that couldn’t possibly be told within a two hour film structure. No, this is more of a fat-free character study that hits only a few of the highlights from an enigmatic man’s fascinating career. With so few available details about Hoover’s personal life, some speculation is required … but Eastwood walks a tightrope so as to make neither a statement nor mockery.
Therein lies the only problem with the film. While hypnotic to watch, we are left with an empty feeling when it’s over. How can that be? This man built the foundation of the FBI. He instigated the fingerprint system. He armed the secret police. His agency tracked down notorious gangsters. He led an anti-communist movement. He was in the middle of the investigation for the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping. He supposedly kept secret files on most politicians and celebrities. He viewed the security of Americans as his responsibility. He was smack dab in the middle of almost 50 years of American history … all while being a power-hungry, paranoid mama’s boy who may have been, in her words, a daffodil.
An elderly Hoover’s own words tell his story as he dictates his memoirs. We are told that his memories of these stories are blurred and he takes a few liberties to say the least. He longed to be the comic book hero like his own G-Men. He longed to be recognized for his contributions, even to the point of desiring a level of celebrity. In his mind, he was the face of national security and the hero cuffing many outlaws. In reality, he was also the black-mailing schemer who so frightened Presidents with his secret files, that all 8 of them backed off firing him. He could be viewed as the ultimate survivor in a town where few careers last so long and cross party lines.
The film picks up in 1919 when Hoover is a youngster making a name for himself as an all-work, no play type. That reputation stuck with him until the end. When he was first promoted, he hired Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts)to be his secretary. In one of the most remarkable hires of all time, she sticks with him until his death in 1972. Staunchly loyal to Hoover and totally dedicated to her job, Ms. Gandy helped Hoover with decisions and processes throughout. The other member of his inner circle was Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Tolson was Hoover’s right-hand man at the bureau, his trusted adviser, his daily lunch partner, and speculation never ceased on their personal ties.
Judi Dench plays Annie Hoover, J Edgar’s controlling mother, whom he lived with until her death. She was also his adviser, supporter and probably a factor in his stunted social skills. We also get glimpses of how he dealt with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and his overall lack of respect for John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Nixon. The Lindbergh case plays a key role because Hoover used it to gain more power for his bureau and increase funding for weapons, forensic labs and resources.
As for Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s difficult to explain just how outstanding his lead performance is. It could have been a caricature, but instead he affords Hoover the respect his place in history demands. The 50 years of aging through make-up can be startling, especially since the time lines are mixed up throughout. His speech pattern mimics Hoover’s, as does the growing waist line. There are some Citizen Kane elements at work in how the story is told and how it’s filmed, but Eastwood wouldn’t shy away from such comparisons.
If you want real details on Hoover, there are some very in-depth biographies out there. The number of documentaries and history books for this era are limitless. What Eastwood delivers here is an introduction to J Edgar Hoover. It is interesting enough to watch, and Leonardo’s performance is a must-see, but the film lacks the depth warranted by the full story.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want a primer to the life and career of Hoover OR you want to see DiCaprio’s performance, which will almost certainly receive an Oscar nom.
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a detailed history on the FBI or the life of Hoover
watch the trailer: