Though he was never elected to office, he was one of the most important men in the U.S. for almost half a century. He began his career during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge in 1924 and served every subsequent president until his death in May, 1972. He transformed the standards of crime-fighting, creating fingerprint databases and technological innovations that are considered the best in the world. He was an articulate charmer, a publicity genius, a visionary about law enforcement, and honored by many as a tenacious patriot. He was also a petty tyrant, a repulsive racist, a vicious twister of the truth, and a trampler on the civil rights of thousands of Americans. When he died at age 77, President Richard M. Nixon, who hated his guts, gave his eulogy.
This was J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Bureau of Investigation and then the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, serving in these capacities for total of 48 years. His enemies were legion–Bolsheviks, communists, gangsters, the Mafia, terrorists, and interstate criminals–as well as civil rights activists, anti-war protestors, Black Panthers, liberals of all ilk and politicians he disliked on general principle. He gloated over the personal files he kept on First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. All the presidents he served feared him in one way or another and Attorney General Robert Kenney despised him. But for some reason–were the contents of the files too explosive?–no one ever actually fired him.
Driving Mr. Hoover’s obsessive behavior was his furious conviction that America was besieged by enemies and only the most diligent vigilance would keep her safe. Thus he rationalized anything he did as being of service to the country he loved, and woe to anyone who disagreed with him. Though his public life was defined by his enemies, Hoover’s confidantes were the ones who bolstered and enabled his personal ambition. They were few in number, three to be exact.
Around these three allies, director Clint Eastwood frames Hoover’s legacy. In his straight forward, almost understated way, Eastwood covers the highlights of Hoover’s career, many of them exciting and all of them of historic importance–but it is the man’s life away from the glare of the flash bulbs that creates the film’s surprising impact.
The trajectory of the film’s story is laid out in a brilliant script by Dustin Lance Black (who won the 2009 Oscar for Best Original Script for Milk). Leonardo DiCaprio, one of our finest young actors but often under appreciated, plays Hoover with relentless fierceness, tempered with occasional tenderness–it’s this quirky combination that makes his portrayal so mesmerizing.
Mr. Hoover, an up-and-coming bureaucrat, feels he should date women, but he really doesn’t have any interest in them. He tries to kiss Miss Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) but she rebuffs his awkward attempt. He makes another proposal–if she won’t think about marrying him eventually would she be his personal secretary? “Yes,” she says, and she stays with him for 54 years, never marrying, guarding the entrance to his office, doing his bidding, occasionally being his conscience–and shredding all the infamous files when he dies.
The other woman s his mother, Annie Hoover, a corrosive matriarch played with scary realism by Judi Drench. Mrs. Hoover prods her son to greatness, encourages him, belittles him, makes him crazy. He lives with her until her death when he is 43 years old. Mrs. Hoover reminds Edgar of what happened to a little boy everyone laughed at–they called him “Daffy,” short for “Daffodil,” because he dressed in women’s clothes. The boy committed suicide. “I’d rather I had a dead son than a daffodil son.” she says. Edgar gets the message.
But Mr. Hoover, despite all his denial and self-discipline, happens to be human. He meets Clyde Tolson, (Armie Hammer) a tall, good-looking, educated young man who knows the best tailors in town. He’s also discreet and very, very subtle. Soon Clyde is Mr. Hoover’s second in command at the FBI. Though they live separately, they are inseparable, working side by side, attending Congressional hearings together, sharing vacations and dinner for the rest of their lives.
Whether these men actually consummated their affection for one another is not known and the film decides that they did not. They loved one another, but remained celibate. It was the only way that men in their position could live at that time. Being a Daffodil Man meant you lived in secrecy. And if you were a Daffodil Man who happened to be the head of the FBI then you ferreted out other homosexuals and threatened to expose them, and never saw the hypocrisy of your ways.
DiCaprio’s performance as Hoover shows the famous man in all his power. He was in essence, a kingmaker whose process was the threat of blackmail. Armie Hammer as Tolson, however, brings out the Hoover’s personal side. Their love is seen in the tiny gestures, adjusting a tie, patting a hand, a chaste kiss on the forehead after decades of companionship. By the time both men are old, balding and covered with age spots, you have come to know them, and to ache for the love they could never express physically. . By the end of J. Edgar, you realize the film is not a history of crime fighting in America–it’s a love story.
J. Edgar is an absolutely extraordinary movie. Exciting, infuriating, informative, romantic, and very sad. However, seeing the movie is not a sad experience. In fact, it’s jubilant. When you leave the theatre, having experienced what life was like for so many Americans in the past, you think, “Thank God, things have changed!” Today men who love one anther–and women who love one another–are coming close to being able to do so with the approval of their fellow Americans.