In 1919, a series of coordinated bombings by an Italian anarchist and his followers sent the United States into a tailspin. Freedom, to hear it told, was under attack by radical elements, and it was up to a quick-thinking federal bureaucrat named Johnny Edgar Hoover to stop them. Sure, his Bureau of Investigation had no real authority, no federal powers of arrest, and no ability to carry firearms. But there was one thing the nascent FBI had that Hoover could use, and that was politics.
Hoover used a loophole in the immigration laws of the time to arrest and deport hundreds of foreign anarchists under federal law, which got him attention and got his agency more power. When scandal forced Attorney General Palmer and most of the senior staff out of the Bureau of Investigation, a 24-year-old J Edgar Hoover took over.
He rapidly built the FBI into a fearsome crime-fighting force, piggybacking on famous criminals and famous crimes to raise the Bureau’s stature. He then used that increased stature to increase the Bureau’s budget, criminal investigation powers, and influence in Washington. The Palmer Raids beget Prohibition and the War on Crime. That lead to the Mafia and the Red Scare. That beget the 60s and the radical movement.
Hoover, through eight presidents and 47 years of service, built the modern FBI brick by brick, turning an underfunded arm of Justice Department into a modern, sophisticated law enforcement office with a comprehensive fingerprint database, evidence laboratories, and legitimate crime-fighting power. He also developed into a cult figure himself, with a network of law enforcement officers across the country as devoted fans, while Hoover himself appeared in newsreels, comic books, and other forms of media. He was a crime-fighting rock star in public, but also a deeply troubled man.
J Edgar has to be one of the most comprehensive portraits of a deeply complicated person that has ever been brought to screens. Pretty much everyone knows something of J Edgar Hoover’s life, but mostly the salacious details and accusations are treated evenly and fairly by Dustin Lance Black’s script.
Yes, the more famous ones are there. Concerns are raised about Hoover’s sexuality, alleged cross-dressing, his smear campaign against Martin Luther King and other perceived radical elements. Also, his stuttering and amphetamine usage, and even his gambling are all addressed.
But there are also moments when the script praises Hoover for his positive traits and forward thinking – his use of fingerprints and forensics, the way he built the FBI into the best law enforcement force in the nation, his notions of personal loyalty and his very clear love of the United States of America, and his single-minded driven nature. The controversial moments are still there, and are still depicted in the script, but they’re handled discreetly and respectfully, without indulging in taunting or unintentional comedy.
Given the potential for comedy in the script, all the credit in the world has to be given to the movie’s three leads: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, and Naomi Watts.
DiCaprio has taken on the role of a lifetime as J Edgar Hoover, and he nails the mannerisms and speech pattern of the most famous G-man in the world impeccably. More importantly than that, he gives a great, emotional performance. His Hoover is cold and fussy, but there are enough cracks behind the facade to see the turmoil boiling beneath, as the man struggles through his many flaws and represses his many desires, sublimating his urges into the one thing he allows himself to truly love: the FBI.
Judi Dench is brilliant as Annie Hoover, the mother that raised a peculiar son and with whom Hoover had a disturbingly close relationship. Armie Hammer’s performance as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s long-time confidant and the only real relationship Hoover ever had, is even better than his twin turn in The Social Network. Hammer inhabits both young Tolson and the frail, elderly Tolson who sticks with Hoover until the end.
The only real flaw from the acting side is that we’re never sure why Naomi Watts’ Helen Gandy sticks with Hoover so long, or why she was so loyal to the man who treated her with alternating warmth and coldness. I’m sure Watts has ideas, but they don’t quite make it through the layers of old age makeup.
That’s another flaw with this movie. The prosthetic makeup used to age the characters is just dreadful. Elderly Hoover isn’t good, but Elderly Tolson is absolutely abysmal. He looks like he’s wearing one of the Point Break masks at some points. I appreciate the effort, but it just didn’t work for me. Most of the time the makeup works, at least on Hoover, but I feel like a lot of Armie Hammer’s smaller character moments are lost behind the Tolson mask; ditto the mask for Naomi Watts.
Despite this, Clint Eastwood has put together another brilliant movie. While Hoover is very long (137 minutes), it never really feels its length, aside from growing bladder pressure. The film moves seamlessly from the present (or the early 70s) to the past, beginning with the Palmer Raids in 1919 and throughout Hoover’s tenure as director of the FBI. It paints a full and compelling portrait of a man who lives through a lot of social change and who has a lot of demons he’s wrestling with, and it’s a return to better work for Eastwood after the stumble of Hereafter. He’s in top form here, with delicate camera movements, great shot composition, and stellar cinematography and lighting.
J Edgar is riveting, from the cold opening to the final shot. It’s not perfect, but it’s about as good as can be expected given the subject matter and just how well Hoover and company kept the secrets of the most powerful and most paranoid man in the world. Expect this movie to be mentioned again in a few months on the Academy Awards telecast.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan is not a Junior G-Man, though he was a member of the FBI Explorer’s Club in the late 90’s and would love to shoot a Tommy Gun. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.