Originally published in The California Aggie
J. Edgar Hoover is one of those unfortunate political figures to whom history has not been especially kind. Is it possible to truly understand anything about a guy who bounces back and forth between paranoid Communist-phobe and cross-dresser in the public eye? But surely there must have been a man behind the mockery. At least, that’s what director Clint Eastwood would have you believe in his skillful, emotional biopic J. Edgar.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the misunderstood title character, aging 50 years in the process with the help of some seriously heavy-duty makeup. The story moves as a series of flashbacks, switching between an aging Hoover dictating his memoirs in the 1970s and a young Hoover rising to power as the groundbreaking director of the new Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the 1930s.
But make no mistake — this is not the story of J. Edgar Hoover, Crime Fighter. Rather, it is the relationship between Hoover and his longtime associate Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, best known as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) that serves as the emotional and narrative core of the film.
Hoover agrees to interview Tolson for a position on his staff after his letter of recommendation announces that he has “no interest in women.” And when Tolson agrees to take the job on the condition that the two never miss a lunch or dinner together, Hoover breaks into a rare smile and says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Current opinions about Hoover’s sexuality, and the true nature of his relationship to Tolson, range from denial (by Hoover himself) to assertions by historians that Hoover was gay. Regardless, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and Eastwood treat Hoover and Tolson’s friendship with more tenderness and understanding than most filmmakers treat heterosexual relationships. The moment when the two men are forced to come to terms with their love, and what to do with it, is heartbreaking.
Leonardo DiCaprio proves yet again, as he did in The Aviator and Catch Me If You Can, that he knows his way around a biopic. His Hoover is socially awkward and baffling neurotic, and he does a fine job recreating Hoover’s overly formal accent.
But if DiCaprio is good, then Hammer is great as the lovestruck, loyal Tolson. With a single look and smile, we learn everything we need to know about his feelings for Hoover. Here is a fresh face in Hollywood worth looking out for.
Eastwood, forever in our hearts as “The Man With No Name” in 1960s and ‘70s Westerns, has experienced somewhat of a rebirth in the last 10 years as a director. His films, like Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, Invictus and Flags of our Fathers, often feature an older man in crisis. Does he use himself for inspiration?
Fans of Eastwood’s work will recognize J. Edgar’s gray-blue color palette, unhurried pace and piano score. It’s all very well-suited to Black’s understated but powerful screenplay. But he and Eastwood make a noticeable error. In centering the film on Hoover and Tolson’s relationship, they neglect explanation of Hoover’s incessant Communist-hunting, wiretapping and secret-file-keeping — the sources of Hoover’s tarnished public image. Hoover’s mother (The incomparable Dame Judi Dench) is meddling and prejudiced herself. But is she to blame? Hard to tell. The film offers virtually no other explanations.
Still, I remind myself that this is not Hoover, the Crime Fighter’s movie. I cannot imagine such a moving, sensitive film about a romantic relationship between two men being possible even 20 years ago. For that reason alone, history owes J. Edgar another look.