New York Post - November 9, 2011
Shock & Law
by Lou Lumenick
It's lust at first sight when young FBI director John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a daring and astonishing performance) gets
hot and bothered while interviewing hunky recent college graduate Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who he’s told “shows no particular
interest in women.’’
Tolson quickly became the FBI’s associate director. And their tortured relationship — apparently sexually unconsummated — over five
decades forms the crux of Clint Eastwood’s ambitious and absorbing “J. Edgar.’’
Eastwood’s fruitful collaboration with gay screenwriter and activist Dustin Lance Black (an Oscar winner for “Milk’’) controversially
and mostly convincingly speculates that Hoover’s remarkable career was at least partially driven by his sublimated feelings.
It be-Hoovers you to see Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the FBI’s ruthless founding director — a role that should put him in the
running for an Oscar.
The film gives Hoover his due as a crime fighter, detailing how he set up America’s national police force, encouraged the use of
scientific methods and fought to keep politicians out of law enforcement.
Hoover’s main weapon to hold off pols who questioned his aims or techniques — including Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F.
Kennedy — was illegally digging up
dirt on their private lives and using it for blackmail.
According to this film, Hoover was a repressed hypocrite and mama’s boy who struggled with his own sexuality.
“I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son,’’ the mother (ferociously played by Judi Dench) tells J. Edgar when he
confesses his discomfort around women.
The sole woman in his inner circle is the asexual Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who serves as his loyal secretary — maintaining his
secret files for decades and destroying them after his death — after turning down a marriage proposal on their third date.
It’s not easy to make Hoover — a snoop whose lifelong obsession with communists was so all-encompassing that in the 1950s he rejected
congressional demands that the FBI target organized crime, which he claimed didn’t exist — a sympathetic character.
But DiCaprio makes you feel for a man who’s seen furtively holding hands with his everyday lunch, dinner and vacation companion and
— addressing unsubstantiated rumors — putting on his mother’s dress and necklace after her death.
Though the two men proclaim their love for each other in private, the closest “J. Edgar’’ gets to explicit homoeroticism is a potent
scene where Hoover tells Tolson it’s “time for a Mrs. Hoover” — and asks for his intimate pal’s permission to marry actress Dorothy
Tolson explodes, punches are exchanged and the two men (who are in pajamas) end up wrestling on the floor, where Tolson kisses Hoover
full on the mouth.
“Don’t you ever do that again!’’ says Hoover. “I won’t,’’ replies Tolson.
They don’t kiss again, but they do make up, and the film follows this odd couple through middle age into their dotage (DiCaprio’s
remarkable makeup is oddly far better than Hammer’s) to Hoover’s death in 1972.
(Tolson was his sole heir.)
Even after a stroke, Tolson remains Hoover’s largely ineffectual conscience. He’s particularly critical of the self-serving
autobiography that Hoover has been dictating over a period of years to increasingly skeptical young agents -- falsely taking credit,
among other things, for arresting the man convicted of kidnapping the young son of Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas).
Eastwood’s depiction of what was called “the crime of the century’’ is disappointing -- the drama is undermined not only by its
unreliable narrator (Hoover), but by a decision to cut back and forth to the FBI director’s unsuccessful attempt to blackmail Martin
Luther King Jr. into refusing the Nobel Peace Prize by threatening to reveal compromising audio tapes.
Much more successful is the film’s rousing opening sequence, which shows 24-year-old Hoover rising to power investigating Bolshevik
bombers in 1919 Washington DC.
DiCaprio may well receive a Best Actor Oscar for his tour de force as the conflicted FBI director -- greatly abetted by Hammer (who
played the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network’’) in his first major role as the flamboyant but frustrated Tolson.
Late in “J. Edgar,’’ the frail FBI director -- who turns aside Tolson’s plea that they retire -- remarks that “a man’s legacy depends
on where the story ends.’’
Unfortunately for Hoover, his eulogy was delivered by Richard Nixon -- whose devotion to Hoover’s darker practices culminated in the
biggest scandal in American political history.