Heading up the Bureau of Investigations for close to 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover didn’t invent any vacuums (as I once believed), but he did shape most of today’s crime fighting techniques while paving the way for the future of law enforcement. Under a regime of secrecy and moral ineptitude, Hoover played by his rules only. With little truly known about the man beyond the rumors, J. Edgar does it’s best to map out the story of a figure who’s lasting legacy is heralded, despite being filled with blackmail, lies, and bigotry.
A young man in 1919 witnessing the terrorist attacks of the Bolshevik invasions, Hoover was appalled to watch police discard all evidence that could be used to capture the men behind a heinous bombing. Strong initiatives and the refusal to see the world from any view but his own, Hoover’s rise in the ranks of the Bureau was swift and warranted, though it was his lack of connection with others that landed him in the big chair. The film is told through the man’s vision of himself as he dictates his life story to numerous Agents who are compiling his memoirs.
No matter how you slice it, J. Edgar Hoover was a bastard. Most of his socio-political views derived from a deep hatred for communists and minorities, and the policies he helped institute reflected that worldview. Blackmailing Attorney Generals, Presidents, and political activists; deceit and a stranglehold on the secrets of others was how Hoover conducted business. Only confiding in his secretary, Helen Gandy, assistant Clyde Tolson, and mother Annie, Hoover surrounded himself with a dysfunctional family who took everything they knew to their graves.
For the tortured portrayal of a despicable man that the film presents, it seems to shy away from painting Hoover at his worst. Every moment of narrow minded madness that comes from his mouth is quickly washed away by one of his three confidants. The subject of J. Edgar’s cross- dressing is relegated to one quick scene and the idea of his suppressed latent homosexuality is a much bigger puzzle piece in the film. Certainly, Hoover being a homosexual is a popular rumor, although the theory of him being a cross-dresser has been the most popular accusation.
My biggest gripe with this film is the pace. I’m not really sure there’s any other way to present this story, but in the near future, doctor’s will begin handing out tickets to J. Edgar instead of prescribing Ambien to insomniacs. Leonardo DiCaprio also posed a few challenges that were hard to look past. He shines in moments of vulnerability, even through the distracting old man makeup. In addition, his accent throws me off. DiCaprio historically has an issue maintaining one accent through a whole film. In J. Edgar he holds onto it enough, though seems to deepen his annunciations as the older Hoover. Voices change over time, but not to that extent.
Armie Hammer as Tolson, Hoover’s life long assistant and makeshift homosexual wife is the real star of the piece. This young guy in odd-looking old man makeup far outweighs anything DiCaprio lays out. Naomi Watts scales her actions down as Helen Gandy, the young beauty turned plain Jane who cares for nothing but her work. Her performance at first glance seems bland and flat. It’s her quiet willingness to do whatever Hoover asks of her that gives the character a new dimension of stone cold unaccountability. Rounding out Hoover’s trio of incestuous comrades is Dame Judi Dench who channels her inner Angela Lansbury from The Manchurian Candidate as the stern, old fashioned Annie Hoover.
Walking out of J. Edgar, I felt disappointment. Due to the lack of facts about this polarizing figure, it was hard to connect to the story as it it has been represented over time, with a glimpse at the man himself. Was the film trying to persecute him? Was it praising him? Was it making enough parallels to today’s big brother issues? The film never seemed to be able to choose one issue to stick to. Then again, maybe that was the point? Hoover was a man looking for approval and never received it, until he was gone. Whether the rumors are true or not, we owe J. Edgar Hoover a multitude of respect, don’t we?
Rating: 3 out of 5 ‘Staches