Clint Eastwood wrote and directed a biopic about the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, getting Leonardo DiCaprio to play the lead role, both young and old. Why do they even carry through with the actual Oscars ceremony anymore?
To add to the Oscar-bait, “J. Edgar” was written by Dustin Lance Black, best known for writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Milk”, the story of California’s first openly gay elected official. He has spun a very different story for this one, a story of one of Washington’s most notorious administrators for decades, and perhaps the most closeted gay non-elected official in history.
For the most part, the story is a love tale that revolves around three of J. Edgar Hoover’s closest – and oddest – relationships. The main object of his affection being Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his deputy who only agrees to accept the position if Hoover promises they will never miss lunch or dinner together for as long as they are partners. The relationship grows deeper as the story builds and one can only squirm at the awkwardness of seeing two people in love but not able to express it, even in private.
One of the biggest reasons for this, other than the obvious social expectations of the mid-20th century, is Hoover’s mother. The man holds on to a fondness for his mother that borders on disturbing and still lives with her long after he has become an iconic figure in Washington. He not only resides with her but remains in a sort of child-mother relationship with the woman. When she tells him at one point, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son,” the viewer feels the pain with Hoover realizing he could never make both the people he cares about happy.
Naomi Watts, one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood, plays a quiet but powerful role as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s secretary of 54 years. After Hoover promptly proposes to her after three dates, she tells him she’s not interested in getting married and is only interested in work. He then just as promptly hires her as his secretary and she is by his side from then on. Watts uses the “less-is-more” approach to make the viewer want to know more about her character. One has to wonder what secrets she struggles with in such a closed-minded society that may contribute to her lack of a social life.
Although this is the sympathetic half of the story, there is also the ever-looming crisis that is Hoover’s career, not to mention his all-around personality. The way Hoover handles such infamous events as the Lindbergh kidnapping, the killing of John Dillinger and his relationships with any of the six presidents that sat during his tenure can only be defined as childish. His hatred for such iconic figures as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. are so far off from the way these people are rightly remembered now that it’s very difficult to feel sorry for the man’s personal problems.
Eastwood does a great job of storytelling throughout the film. His depictions of 1930’s America show a tumultuous place where, in Hoover’s mind, domestic communists are ready to bomb the entire country to kingdom come at any turn. His quickness to take anything progressive and label it communist is a recognizable trait in an era where Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh rule the airwaves.
Not many of Hoover’s higher ups agree with this way of seeing things, so to deal with threats to his power he compiles a secret file. This collection of paperwork with all the “immoral” secrets of top government officials and playmakers including King, Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt and others, would make Julian Assange drop to his knees. It is this file that is symbolic of the life that Hoover led, keeping secrets that never really mattered because nobody ever knew them.