Covers the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s chief J. Edgar Hoover from early anti-Communist crusader to his control of the FBI from the ’30s to his death in 1972. It sees his establishment of ideologically and personally acceptable personnel, of new crime hunting methods used in tracking down such people as Hauptmann, the alleged murderer of Lindbergh’s kidnapped child. It looks at his supposed capture of gangsters and in the 60’s his attempted blackmailing of Martin Luther King. It also looks at his manipulative role with the Kennedy family in the early ’60s. It’s all told in flashbacks. We see his relationship with his secretary (who rebuffs him as a possible marriage partner) and his gay friend Clyde Tolson. We see his dominating mother and her influence on his life.
This is directed by Clint Eastwood who as a conservative Republican can’t be expected to be overly critical of that reactionary monster and he isn’t. The criticisms tend to be ineluctable because they are too obvious: Hoover was corrupted by absolute power which undermined the very ideals he claimed to be defending. So that in the name of individual liberty he used blackmail, wire tapping, and other manic bureaucratic surveillance techniques, what a cosmic irony! Eastwood’s film wants us to believe Hoover was a decent geek whose control freakery was at first the lovable quirk of an overly mother dominated young man. He was determined to hunt down all perceived opponents of his conservative America, suffocating intellectual dissent in the process. We are given hints of the Howard Hughes school of sociopathy by his loonily controlling mother, it’s a wonder he survives it (though he did put on her dress). He seems to have lived in an antiseptic chamber of effete spite (bodily contact not welcome). Eastwood’s criticism is gentle (eerily so), we learn that Hoover did not personally arrest gangsters, as if we believed otherwise! His rule was unaccountable and his self righteous paranoia factored into a red neck witch hunting mentality. Others were sacrificed to enhance his career: was there conclusive proof about Hauptmann’s guilt? He nearly destroyed Martin Luther King by slander. Anyone who crossed him he could threaten with impunity. Leonardo di Caprio tries to convey understanding for his despicable actions but he only succeeds in making Hoover look pathetically deluded and isolated.
The use of prosthetics has been remarked on, how it makes the actors look in old age like plaster mummies. It seems the technology of prosthetics in cinema is still not properly developed, the actors do look like they’ve been in a flour fight. At times the film looks like a camcorder’s spying on a prosthetics party: very weird. Prosthetics of course are not meant to be flattering if it shows older age (but it should convey natural aging), but the crudity of this art cannot do this. Naomi Watts as Helen Candy looks frumpy, maybe she should sue Eastwood. Armie Hammer plays Clyde Tolson, his initial demurrals against Hoover’s criminality succumb to his control. The film says that Tolson’s gayness was not reciprocated, so it derives interest from a controversial relationship whilst keeping Hoover free of what makes it interesting. One’s sympathy for Armie Hammer or Tolson is killed early on since they were willing cronies and only seemed to have eleventh hour attacks of conscience. They were morally compromised drudges.
The film tries to take too much on. It has to cover a career from the twenties to 1972, we see nothing of the ’40s and ’50s. Hoover’s career should have been covered by two or three films. The only satisfactory voice in the film is that of fellow rogue Richard Nixon who dismisses Hoover as a creep. Like The Iron Lady it’s told in flashbacks about an unlovable right wing figure.
This gets me onto the two biopics. The Iron Lady and J. Edgar and their flashbacks through the prosthetics department. We seem to be witnessing the cosy domestication of right wing thugs and since we’ve been suffering right wing political thuggery since the 1980’s, I suppose it’s hardly surprising. Why not make a cosy biopic about Al Capone? We could see him in old age (we can slap on a lot of white make up even though he was only 47 when he died), and he can tell his lovable story in flashbacks. Forget the misunderstandings about the occasional killing, after all he was a misunderstood family man and a well meaning businessman. Don’t pay any attention to that nasty Eliot Ness who was only envious anyway. We could get Robert de Niro to bring a tear to our eyes as he plays good old Al singing Italian ballads.