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15th December
2011
written by Mad Cow

Rated: R for brief strong language

Mad Cow’s Rating:

Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be on a roll with biopics, having portrayed Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover and Frank Sinatra in the works. He’s a brilliant actor and is so here. Unfortunately the material doesn’t make for a great movie. J. Edgar isn’t even close to The Aviator. Love him or hate him, J. Edgar Hoover was a giant in American history and worthy of note. The note that this film gives him is too flimsy for a man who was bigger than life.

Director Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) shouldered an enormous undertaking. The FBI achieved the stature it has today under Hoover’s 50 years of leadership. Behaving much like a paranoid ideologue, he rooted out communists and maybe-communists, ruining lives and deporting many, including Emma Goldman, as enemies of the state, often with questionable legality. He hounded civil rights leaders and outed homosexuals. He kept secret files of many officials’ peccadilloes, especially presidents, thereby maintaining his power via threat of exposure, often seen as simple blackmail. He also modernized the entire field of criminal investigation. We see snippets of all of these things throughout the film, but mostly as background to Hoover’s private life.

Shortly after assuming the directorship, Hoover met Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), and hired him. In short order Tolson became Edgar’s constant companion and the number two man at the Bureau. The two men did everything together. Clyde helped Edgar choose his suits, about which he was fastidious. But, as Eastwood would have us believe, they didn’t “do it.” At this point I’d like all readers to review what they know about men’s sexuality in general, gay men’s sexuality, and the sexual activities of very powerful men.

Powerful men are known to risk their careers in order to engage in a wide variety of sexual activities with a concomitant variety of sexual partners. Because of homophobic laws and attitudes, gay men sometimes resort to anonymous sex in parks. So why, I ask, would one assume that Edgar and Clyde didn’t have sex? Heterosexuals can’t have it both ways. They can’t go around saying that gay people are so obsessed with sex that their promiscuity knows no bounds, and then exclude from this rule anyone who’s been the least bit famous, with the possible exception of Cole Porter.

Supposedly Edgar was repressed and conflicted because of his hateful scary mother (Judi Dench), with whom he lived until her death. And anyway, it was the other guy who was gay. Tolson supposedly was more self-assured but physically spurned by Hoover. There is a funny gay moment when Hoover talks about putting a large sign above the door of a room to be designated the laboratory, declaring “We’re going to be known for something.” To which Clyde quips “Decorating?”

There is no absolute evidence that Hoover was gay, no sperm on the dress so to speak. Just rumors. There are also rumors that Hoover was a cross-dresser. Oddly, Black lifts this suggestion from its original allegation of someone having seen Hoover in a dress at a party, to suggest that donning a dress was not only private but due to a moment of grief. Interestingly, the other rumor about Hoover, that he was mixed race, i.e. Black, goes unexplored.

Filmed in distracting sepia tones presumably to emphasize the “old days,” the movie is literally dark, supposedly matching Hoover’s moods. Hoover is fearful of his mother, sweating from nervousness and always needing to prop himself up. Yes, yes, we know that egotistical famous men can be insecure, often needing to build on their glory and exaggerate their achievements. But we see way too much of the insecure man and not enough of the powerful (if evil) dictator. Tolson lights up his life, but not as much as he probably did in real life.

This story does bring out Hoover’s positive influence in the use of science, including a national bank of finger prints, in investigations. We take these things for granted today. Who knew? In this regard, the use of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping as a hook works as a prime example. With no jurisdiction, Hoover nevertheless involved himself in the case and used it to build the strength of the FBI, even convincing Congress to make kidnapping a federal crime.

Mention must be made of Hammer’s old-person make-up in marked contrast to the expert aging of Hoover. Tolson’s had a stroke, but he looks like the living dead and walks around like a zombie. In addition to a lighter touch on the make-up, Hammer could have used some face-time with actual old people. And then there’s Eastwood’s pace, slow and steady and tedious. The actors who play Bobby Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and Richard Nixon (Christopher Shyer) are really good. Nixon especially lends one of the liveliest 20 seconds of the entire 137 minutes. But who’s counting?

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