J. Edgar

Behind every great man is a great woman
★★★
☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Clint Eastwood
Starring: 
Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench
The Setup: 
Biography of J. Edgar Hoover that pays special attention to his alleged homosexuality.
Discussion: 

If you're going to see one of the recent films by Clint Eastwood, you have to prepare yourself for something that will be thoughtful, workmanlike and considered, if also a trifle boring and lifeless. I have skipped his last few movies for this reason, but for this one, a retrospective biography of the man that promised to shine a special light on the intimations of homosexuality that surrounded him, that approach sounded ideal. I also specifically went with two friends of mine, very politically-engaged guys in their sixties, who I hoped would be able to offer some insight based on their own remembrances of some of the later events in question. We found ourselves in an audience of people of a similar age, which is nice not only because you know there will be no texting and little talking, but also because they too are there to see events they remember being portrayed on film. It was also amusing to hear them issue crotchety "I'd sooner die's" after each trailer for upcoming films.

Nevertheless, I found that movie assumes a fair amount of knowledge of its subject, so if you want to get a little more out of it I'd suggest a skim of Hoover's Wiki page first. The movie begins in the 20s with bombings across Washington DC, planted by political dissenters. Hoover sees it and knows that these rebels must be stopped. He goes inside where we find his mother, played by Judi Dench, and notice that every little thing she says is laced with a thread of insult. We also see Hoover as an older man, narrating "his side of the story" to a revolving series of aides. We are to understand that he was constantly firing them for not being sufficiently sycophantic. The rest of the movie will alternate back and forth between his narrating the story, and flashbacks to events as they unfolded.

Early on he meets Helen Gandy, takes her on a date to show her the card catalog of the Library of Congress (some dates are better than others) and proposing to her, though it's only their third date. She refuses, so he asks her to become his personal secretary, a position she remains in for the rest of her life. Gandy is played by Naomi Watts, although I watched the entire movie having no idea that it was her. One important thing Hoover says on this date is that he doesn't need to get to know people better (than a third date, say) because he "sees people for what they are." That kind of certainty of his snap judgements will inform his rigid views throughout the film.

Hoover is part of a task force to rid the United States of "communists," and we see that from the start, he wants to be able to arrest and deport immigrants based on their views, whether or not they have actually committed a crime. An early triumph for him is the deportation of Emma Goldman. Soon the Attorney General is calling him in and observing that Hoover has no social life, no past, and all his men call him names behind his back--and thus he's perfect to head a brand new organization, the FBI. Hoover is put in charge of creating this new federal police force. Image is very important to him, and when he makes known that he will tolerate no facial hair in his unit, a certain part of me has to say "Well, there goes my fun."

He meets hunky applicant Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer, known as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Hoover speeds through his application although Tolson seems quite unqualified, and in their interview, Tolson proves himself invested in personally caring for Hoover's domestic comfort, adjusting the curtains and offering him a handkerchief to wipe his brow. We can see that Hoover is made a little bit giddy by Tolson, though he may not be aware of exactly why, and Hammer fills the role of the refined agent who also happens to be supernaturally handsome and big and hunky. The movie very smartly shows Tolson tossing off snappy one-liners and showing interest in fashion that we might today associate with being stereotypically gay, but without calling attention or naming it as such. Tolson also has no "family encumbrance," and shows no interest in women. You're hired!

Two two are soon inseparable. The first case in which Hoover thinks the FBI will shine is the kidnapping of the Lindburgh baby, where it is revealed that the FBI has no real jurisdiction, can't make arrests, and can't carry guns. Hoover's mother tells him that "he has to find that baby," a mission he takes right to heart. Hoover wants to amass a database of fingerprints of every citizen in the country, wants every citizen to carry an identity card, and is soon pushing for expanded powers of surveillance. He asks Tolson to "be his number two," which Tolson accepts under the condition that they have lunch and dinner together every single night. Hoover replies that he "wouldn't have it any other way."

Hoover gets more power. The gangsters of the 30s result in the ability for the FBI to make arrests and carry guns (detailed in the excellent book--not movie--Public Enemies). Hoover later starts wiretapping politicians and civil rights leaders, and using his information to blackmail them for his own ends. Eventually the political mood changes and Hoover is more and more seen as a crazy crank who is suspicious of everyone, and also dangerous because of the information he has, leading him to be more and more ostracized and marginalized. Both of these areas are ones in which it helps to have one's own knowledge of what was happening, because the movie skates over it all and assumes that you already know what is happening, and what it all means.

SPOILERS > > >
His relationship with Tolson is a constant. The two vacation together, and one night, Hoover says that he holds Tolson in high regard, which causes Tolson to reply "and I love you, Edgar." Hoover next says that it's time for a Mrs. Hoover (apparently he has been known to propose to several women on the first few dates and always been refused), which causes Tolson to flip out. They have a glass-smashing fight, then Tolson grabs Hoover and kisses him. Okay, so here's the cliche moment in which someone is kissed suddenly and passions are expected to be unleashed, but DiCaprio makes gold out of it with a surprised, genuine expression that shows him shocked and amazed at his own excitement. His performance was largely made, for me, by the one shot, and finding a way to avoid the cliche it could easily have been. Tolson tells him that the next time he mentions a ladyfriend, it's over.

Soon we are learning that Hoover cannot abide dancing with women. He is asked to dance by the mother of Ginger Rodgers (an unrecognizable Lea Thompson), and freaks and needs to escape as soon as possible. When he mentions this to his mother, she brings up a person they knew when younger, who was discovered dressed in women's clothes. This person was nicknamed "Daffy," which we find out was short for "Daffodil." Mom then says she'd rather have a dead son that a daffodil for a son. So she's not real open to learning that her son might be gay. But the way it's delivered, the context is that she already knows, and that's why she is saying this. The movie tells us that Hoover lived with his mother until he was forty.

As the movie winds down, we see Hoover becoming more isolated from the rapidly-changing government going into the Sixties, but tolerated by incoming presidents and such because everyone knows Hoover had amassed damaging information about them. We see him pursuing wingnut pursuits such as trying to blackmail Martin Luther King out of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Finally we get to later, as he and Tolson are both old men. They have a fight, and we find out that a lot of what we've seen over the course of the movie are Hoover's embellished version of the truth, making him out to be a hero at the center of events, when he was largely cowardly and behind the scenes. Clever, but not quite enough to make the whole thing interesting. Finally Hoover accepts that he is ailing, and instructs Helen Gandy to shred his private files. the very end shows us Nixon sending people to find these files, only to find his cases empty, and Gandy methodically shredding everything.
< < < SPOILERS END

So the movie makes it out that Hoover and Tolson were chaste, that Hoover was simply unable to overcome his personal demons enough to make anything of it. There is numerous conflicting evidence, but this movie has made one interpretation and arranged a cohesive statement about it. It centers the source of all this internalized shame--as well as all of his moralistic obsessions and pursuits--on his mother. When Hoover is appointed head of the new FBI we see that she is keeping the newspaper clipping literally close to her heart. When the Lindburgh baby is kidnapped, she tells him he must find that baby, and when the body is finally found, she tells him he has blood on his hands. So she is portrayed as the prime motivator of all of his obsessions and weirdness, including his inability to admit to his homosexuality (and likely his homosexuality in the first place). When she dies, we see Hoover putting on her dress and pearls, which is meant to allude to his alleged cross-dressing. But the main point of that scene is when he stares at himself in the mirror, in his mother's dress, he says, in her voice, "Be strong, Edgar," which is to show us that he has internalized her voice, both shaming and judgmental. You know, behind every great man is a great woman. So this may not be the truest version of events, but it is one consistent interpretation, and you kind of have to respect it for that.

Thing is, this very thing also limits its appeal. A lot of the reason younger people who do not have a historical context for the events would want to see this is to find out what the story is, and this film is pretty open about not knowing fully what the story is. As I looked around the audience of people in their sixties, and really no one but people in their sixties, I had to wonder who else would want to see this movie, and why. The friends I went with still liked it the next few days, largely because they remembered Hoover and this movie succeeded in humanizing and showing a different side to him, but I was telling my younger friends there's no reason to bother with it. It has to include too much historical interpretation to form a cohesive statement about repressed homosexuality, and it has too much about repressed homosexuality to say that much that's interesting about the history. Then again, one has to appreciate that Clint Eastwood is in a place in his life and career where he can make these rambling dramas that don't have to have one main point and two clearly articulated sub-points, and one can enjoy NOT hitting all the expected points and NOT having everything tied up into neat narrative bows.

Should you watch it: 

It's good enough, but if you don't remember the events and want to see the portrayed, it might have limited interest, even for a gay person interested in the homo angle.