J. EDGAR is the work of an unlikely biopic all-star team: Leonardo “The Aviator” DiCaprio playing the notorious FBI director (even though he’s an old man during alot of the movie), Clint “Bird” Eastwood directing, and Dustin Lance “Milk” Black on the keyboards. This topic required calling in the pros because J. Edgar Hoover was an asshole and a weirdo, but not in a charming or funny way, like Larry Flynt or somebody. And even though he was (according to many, including this movie) a minority – a closeted and tormented gay man – there is nothing anti-establishment about him. He’s not a guy who bucked the system. He created the damn system. Hard to make that glamorous in a movie.
In fact, that’s kind of a reoccurring theme, he keeps complaining about movies glamorizing the “radicals” and “hoodlums” he fights against and is happy when they finally make ones that make kids want to grow up to be G-men. But this won’t make kids want to grow up to be FBI director. Sorry, J.
That counterintuitive biopic subject matter is what makes the movie much more interesting than I expected. We’re so used to the formula of these types of biographies that to see it done with an old fuddy duddy like this instead of a charismatic underdog feels new and refreshing. The story is told by an elderly, still-in-charge Hoover dictating his story to a young PR man. Admittedly the jumping around in time is kind of a biopic cliche, but it makes it so that even the early portion of the story where he’s an underdog is told from the point-of-view of an old creep that’s been one of the most powerful people in the country for decades. And yet he still has a persecution complex, grumbling about how “your generation” doesn’t understand how heroic he was to be fighting against American communists and nobody gives him credit for being an innovator and The Man won’t give him the proper tools he needs in order to be The Man.
Once or twice Black does a little bit of that thing where the writer telegraphs his moral problems with what’s going on a little too much by having the PR man ask some pointed questions, but for the most part I think the movie keeps a real good balance, not trying to recast Hoover as heroic or cool but also trying to give him fair credit for his accomplishments and unique qualities. Much more than it tries to make a point out of him it just presents him: here is a very flawed dude who had a huge effect on the world. Draw your own conclusions.
His biggest achievement was also sort of covered in Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES: his part in the transformation of police investigation techniques. We see him completely revamp filing systems, politically maneuver to give his bureau more power, find legal loopholes to give them guns, promote the scoffed-at idea of a central fingerprint database. Basically, he popularizes the idea of proving suspects guilty using evidence.
At first all this seems pretty Big Brotherly. When he arms his agents they raid a communist “bomb factory” where it really looks like they’re just making newspapers. Even Hoover seems a little uncomfortable as his boys run a Rodney King on some guy that looks more like an old timey printing press operator than a dangerous saboteur. (Not that he does anything about it.) But later, during the Depression and the era of famous bank robbers like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, you can see how those more sophisticated policing methods came in handy for something “our generation” can understand.
Hoover’s story focuses on dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. The local law enforcement doesn’t listen to him, they fail to save the baby, but over time and using his new-fangled detectiving techniques his team is able to apprehend the killer.
That’s his telling of it. The neatness of that ending is called into question, some of the facts are disputed. Even Hoover sort of acknowledges the phoniness when he refers to himself as “the protagonist” and admits he wants a happy ending. And in the ’60s, when he’s telling it, it’s clear that he’s Big Brother again. Or Big Uncle? He’s got such a spy network that he delights in terrifying the Kennedys, Nixon and others with implications about the secret files he has on them. He’s really got a thing for Dr. King, too. He calls him “our greatest domestic threat.” There’s a scene where he watches the “I Have a Dream” speech on TV and grimaces. I don’t like this guy.
But there are a couple people who do like him, and I guess through their decades of loyalty we can see some humanity in him. They are his secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his right hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). It definitely seems like he has his eye on Clyde as soon as he sees him and hires him despite not entirely fitting his strict profile of what type of guy to fire. When Clyde comes into his office for the job interview he walks in on J. Edgar doing push ups! Oh, I didn’t see you there, I was just exercising, as I always do.
The two end up working closely together for decades, having lunch and dinner together every day, going on vacations with a connecting suite. We learn that when Hoover died Clyde inherited his money, moved into his house, and ultimately they were buried near each other. Either they were lovers or they were the ultimate bros. In interviews on the DVD it sounds like Black definitely believes Hoover and Tolson were lovers, while Clint wanted to leave it ambiguous. But while the movie never shows them in bed together and they sort of pretend to not be a couple it definitely gets to a point where you can’t read it any other way. Clyde says “I love you,” J. Edgar’s version is “I care for you so very much, Clyde.” The ambiguous part is earlier in their relationship – are they together, and the couple stuff is off screen? Or are they really just colleagues, in denial, endlessly circling each other? Is that connecting suite a convenience or a torment?
There are many mediocre or pretty-good biopics. They might have a great central performance and an interesting subject matter but mostly kind of go through a playlist of the famous moments, the marriages, the death. So it’s enjoyable but seems obvious. J. EDGAR even more than most can’t possibly go through everything the guy did in his career and life, so it gets to do alot of implying without going into detail (the hatred of King, knowing things about the Kennedys, scaring the shit out of Nixon), but it also doesn’t hold as many expectations for what parts to show as if he was Johnny Cash or somebody. Black not only finds really interesting things in Hoover’s work and his life but also finds many great moments and scenes that say so much about the characters.
J. Edgar first meets Helen, brings her on a date to the Library of Congress
This is an incredible scene that works on a bunch of different levels. It could almost fit into a tradition of biopic date scenes where our hero takes the girl for some activity that says something about his passions. In ED WOOD there’s that great scene where he brings Patricia Arquette on a haunted house ride, it gets hung up, he confesses to her that he’s a crossdresser, she accepts, the ride turns back on. In THE AVIATOR he brings Katharine Hepburn for a romantic night flight and shows her how to fly a plane. J. Edgar’s idea of a date is to bring a gal to see his filing system and have her time him looking stuff up. It shows something important he created, but also what a nerd he was, and that she was sort of charmed by his goofiness.
But he just met her and he gets down on his knees to propose to her. In some other movie this might be a wildly romantic gesture, thinking with his heart against all common sense. Helen wisely doesn’t take it that way, she takes it as creepy and uncomfortable. And he’s too much of a weirdo to spin it. His explanation is that they need to get married because he’s a good judge of character.
What the fuck is going through his head? Probly that he’s anxious to get a beard and jumping the gun a little. But also he just thinks that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to get a wife, right? This seems like a good one. Why waste time?
I am J. Edgar D’Voidoffunk, and I’ll never dance!
There’s a crucial scene where Hoover gets into trouble hanging out with movie stars. He loves Hollywood glamour, tells show-offy stories to celebrities, gets jealous and tries to ruin Melvin Purvis’s career when he gets famous, starts making arrests himself after being embarrassed in a Congressional hearing when they point out that he doesn’t run in there with a gun himself like a movie star. Unlike DiCaprio-as-Howard-Hughes it’s more of an egotistical interest in this world than being passionately drawn to it. So when he’s flirting with starlets and one of them asks him to dance he freaks out, has to leave, goes home to his mother (who he still lives with) a crying, stuttering mess.
I think this is mostly a matter of being a conflicted gay man. He knows his mother hates “daffodils” and he would never want to be one, but he can no longer bring himself to pretend to dance with a woman. At the same time though I think he’s telling the truth saying that he can’t dance. So it’s deeply symbolic not just of his sexual hangups but also just being a fuckin tightass grump. Of course J. Edgar Hoover hates dancing! He’s J. Edgar Hoover.
There are great scenes like that, and there are also just great moments that really stuck in my brain. When the emotions finally boil over and J. Edgar and Clyde have a fight, and Clyde throws a glass, J. Edgar’s response is to scold him, saying “Pick that glass up immediately!” What a weird thing to say in that situation, but what a J. Edgar thing to say.
And there’s a little thing that Helen does after finding out that (SPOILER) Hoover died that’s a mix of sweet and haunting. I gotta give Black alot of credit for this movie, it’s a really interesting script with so many different things going on and so many great little details.
Of course I also give all credit for everything ever to Clint Eastwood. He obviously did a good job directing (he also did the score) and this is one where he kind of stays out of the way. I don’t think I would’ve guessed this was a Clint movie if I didn’t know. Well, the jazz on the end credits might’ve given it away. But it doesn’t really give away his authorship in obvious ways. It just has his touch: fair, not too over the top, willing to be quiet, willing to be simple, but then when you think about it you realize it’s pretty complex.
Clint’s at a place in his directing career where he just doesn’t give a fuck about what anybody else wants. With INVICTUS he proved that he can do a good crowdpleasing version of an Oscar bait type of topic and get absolutely no acknowledgment from the Oscars and then not care about it at all. Here he has an even more Oscar baitable movie that in my opinion is better than many of the ones that were nominated, and you don’t hear anybody crying snub. And nobody needs to, because Clint doesn’t need the attention. J. Edgar would love it, but Clint couldn’t care less.
I had heard that there was ridiculous old man makeup in the movie. I must have a bad eye for this sort of thing because I thought the Hoover makeup actually looked really good. Yeah, it looks like an old Leo DiCaprio, and we know that he is not actually that old. And at first it’s disconcerting to hear his voice coming out of that. But I think it looks convincing. And Naomi Watts’s is so good that I had no idea it was her until I saw her later in the younger scenes. I just thought it was an older actress, so she passes the test. I will concede that Armie Hammer’s makeup doesn’t work, I don’t know why. Part of it might be that he always has the posture of a young man.
Kinda funny, Eastwood has tried all the different approaches to dealing with aging. In MYSTIC RIVER he has little kids dressed up as Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. In SPACE COWBOYS he has young actors dubbed with the voices of their older counterparts. Now he uses the old fashioned makeup and gets a bunch of shit for it. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care. He’s Clint Eastwood.
I kind of take DiCaprio for granted at this point. He likes doing these big, showy roles. He’s doing an accent, playing both the young rookie and the old boss man, both arrogant and timid, giving a speech on TV, blubbering and stuttering at home. He yells, cries, babbles, the whole nine yards. He pulls the old look off better in this one than THE AVIATOR. But it kind of seems like a similar role, in a way.
So it’s Armie Hammer that really steals the show. He’s real damn good as the long-suffering, always professional, All-American, very slightly effeminate, very intelligent partner. I really want to sit the internet down for a screening of this movie and then help them draft their apology letter to George Miller for criticizing him when he cast Hammer as Batman. Turns out the guy who you would think would know what he was doing actually did know what he was doing. Go figure.
Hats off also to Watts, who is great and understated, a lady whose feelings we know by watching her even though she probly wouldn’t think it was proper to talk about it.
I guess this usually happens with Clint’s directing-not-acting movies, but this was way better than I expected. It was one of those things where I intellectually knew I wanted to see it because of the director but honestly wasn’t too excited because of the subject. And then I watched it and it stayed on my mind for days. J. EDGAR is the best FBI director understated gay romance biopic of all time.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.