J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most powerful men of the 20th century, gained much of his power through political maneuvering, even blackmail. Yet his personal life was characterized by quiet repression. Director Clint Eastwood (Hereafter) seeks to peel back the G-Man veneer and expose the scared little man behind the FBI.
Cutting back and forth between Hoover’s rise and decline, the film paints an interesting portrait of a fairly unlikable figure. The older Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio: Inception) dictates his life story to a series of agents who act as biographers. No agent lasts very long, as persnickety J. Edgar dismisses them for such offenses as sweaty palms.
In memory, he rises in the ranks of the Justice Department, taking charge of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation, a group of men with no jurisdiction over local authorities, who cannot carry guns and who have no power of prosecution. Driven to succeed by his domineering mother, Annie (Judi Dench: Jane Eyre), Hoover puts all his energy into fighting the Bolshevik extremists of 1919.
The crime of the century — the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son and its subsequent mishandling by the New Jersey police — gives Hoover his chance to gain power for his bureau. Then, as head of the new FBI, he uses new technology, such as fingerprinting, to wage war on prohibition bootleggers.
To battle the romanticized image of gangsters, Hoover mounts his own PR campaign, sponsoring G-Men comic books and radio shows that depict his agents — and himself — as no-nonsense heroes for the modern age. But this image is threatened by Hoover’s own tormented motivations. He’s enraged when agent Melvin Purvis kills John Dillinger, because it takes his name from the spotlight. Later, Hoover insists upon being present for the arrests of other noteworthy gangsters, since only he should be the face of the FBI.
To stay in power in Washington, Hoover develops his Confidential Files, which detail the sexual and criminal scandals of the elite players in D.C. Hoover blackmails each president into keeping him around another four years.
Director Eastwood is interested in the notion that power corrupts, yet he raises questions that he leaves unresolved, key among them Hoover’s need to bring down such famous characters as Martin Luther King, Jr.
More interesting than brash political maneuvering and egocentric self-promotion is Hoover’s private life. On the part of his life always shrouded in rumor and innuendo, Eastwood takes the direct approach, portraying Hoover as a conflicted homosexual who can’t conceive of having a relationship with a man.
Hoover’s dilemma is deepened because his second-in-command — as well as constant companion, fashion consultant, dinner mate and gossiping buddy Clyde Tolson — (Armie Hammar: The Social Network) is the unacknowledged love of his life. Tolson’s sexual intentions are clear, but Hoover can’t break away from the Victorian morality instilled in him by his mother.
Both Hammar and DiCaprio play their longing beautifully. Hammar is an intense admirer who gently scolds Hoover like a doting wife. DiCaprio gives one of his better performances, illuminating Hoover’s humanity and desperation and eliciting sympathy from the audience for a man who judged his means by his own ends. You question Hoover’s actions, but you feel for this sad, repressed man and his lost opportunities.
This chaste romance at the heart of J. Edgar is the reason to see it.