By Joan Ellis
Director Clint Eastwood loves a challenge and he took on a zinger when he decided to make J. Edgar. The vain and powerful FBI director was not the heroic gangbuster of legend, and Eastwood’s task was complex.
In 1919, J. Edgar Hoover is hired to run the anti-radical division of the fledging FBI. The man who will build and control the bureau for nearly five decades steps on board with a strange mix of ambition, ability, and paranoia. Socially tense and willingly in thrall to his mother (Judi Dench), the young Hoover proposes awkwardly to a girl from the typing pool who refuses him but becomes his secretary and protector for life. She is Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts.)
Hoover’s role in designing the innovative card catalogue system at the Library of Congress serves him well in developing the fabled fingerprint analysis system that will serve as a centralized data bank for law enforcement. He focuses on killing the bank robbers and gangsters of his day: Dillinger, Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, and indulges in an orgy of self-promotion that glamorizes the bureau as “Hoover’s G-men.”
Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) fits Hoover’s stringently conservative employee profile perfectly and becomes his second in command as well as his constant companion. As Hoover becomes obsessed with communists – whose power he vastly overestimates – he expands the bureau’s surveillance capability to the private lives of public figures – Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and journalists.
By this time, it’s hard not to agree with Charles Lindbergh who called Hoover “a fussy little man” and refused to shake his hand, or with Clyde Tolson’s analysis that Hoover wanted “our country’s lasting adoration.” This is a man so powerful that he blackmails incumbent presidents to secure tenure for himself, a man so conflicted that he struggles to contain his own homosexuality while condemning it in others, a man unable to resolve any personal relationships.
So how successful is director Clint Eastwood in telling the excessively unpleasant story of this exceptionally unpleasant man? The make-up people did their job well for Leonardo diCaprio, but it is diCaprio the actor who inhabits a man who ages over the decades without ever overcoming the paranoid stew of his rage and ambition. Though he resists the path of easy editorializing, Eastwood wraps the story in unnecessary melodramatic lighting and music when the darkness needs no extra emphasis. Unfortunately a heavy load of information leads to a fragmented picture.
Over the years, Clint Eastwood has earned the public trust. Because the various distasteful revelations here have been documented elsewhere by reliable sources, his movie is probably accurate. It is also a powerful reminder of the degree to which power can accrue to a man who gathers and uses material illegally in order to hunt his prey and keep presidents in line. Beware, future presidents, of who you choose to head the FBI.