In the biopic J. Edgar, director Clint Eastwood has managed to penetrate the tough layer of the actions of a politician who kept the secrets of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for over 40 years and reach the man who was at the heart of it all.
J. Edgar Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, was the first director of the FBI and remained in office over the course of eight presidencies. By the end of his life, he instituted the use of a centralized fingerprint data bank and forensic laboratories, and built the Bureau into the powerhouse it is today.
DiCaprio, his face clad in prosthetic latex aging him by multiple decades, delivered an almost startling performance, completely removing any trace of himself and encompassing Hoover’s character to the fullest extent. Every move, every stutter, every minute shift of his body was carefully calculated to reflect the man he was trying his best to become.
No moment in the film could show the fullness of DiCaprio’s performance better than the scene after the death of Hoover’s mother. A woman who had domineered and nurtured her son throughout his life, Anna Marie Hoover (Judi Dench), was J. Edgar’s whole world. After she passes away, he retreats into her room, desperately searching for a reminder of her presence.
He takes her jewelry, kissing it, and puts it on, followed by one of her dresses. In a moment of raw and powerful vulnerability, DiCaprio did away with the hysterics of grief. He became a boy before the very eyes of the viewer, lost and alone without the guidance of his mother, before sobbing and collapsing to the floor.
He repeatedly whispers, “be strong,” words his mother said when he was overwhelmed at the lack of trust he had for anyone else.
“Faith, Edgar, faith,” she had said before she died. “Don’t wilt like a little flower. Be strong.”
Whether he was telling himself to stay strong in denying the person he truly was, whom he wanted to be, or he was reminding himself to stay strong at the loss of his mother is for the viewer to decide.
The film followed alongside the thoughts of Hoover, jumping through his memories as he dictated the history of the FBI to various young agents in an attempt to tell his side of the past. The story line was difficult to follow at first, but after understanding the flow of the narrator’s consciousness it was clear that Eastwood was sifting through the recollections of a man who was tightyly interwoven in much of U.S. political history.
The events in Hoover’s life, including the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s child and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, serve as settings designed to provide a background for a man who was rumored to have struggled with his sexuality, his desperation to hold on to power, and a magnificent stutter. The only way he was able to speak coherently was to speak as quickly as possible, earning him the nickname ‘Speedy.’
His second-in-command within the Bureau, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), was rumored, for years, to be Hoover’s lover. In a knockout performance, Hammer, most notable for his role in 2010’s The Social Network, conveys his devotion and quiet adoration with absolute poise. Even when Tolson breaks his calm exterior after Hoover confesses to an affair with a woman, his rage and pain are delivered with an otherworldly grace; one that reminds the viewer that superb acting can be delivered even as glass is shattering and blood is running down the actor’s face.
Eastwood, though acknowledging the significance of Tolson and Hoover’s physical relationship, does not allow it to swallow the film. Instead, he focuses on the emotional aspects that connected the two men on levels perhaps more intense than any gratuitous sex scene could show.
Skipping through Hoover’s memories, the viewer is reminded that not all recollections are accurate. As he relates his accomplishments to Tolson, who is now frail and vulnerable after a stroke leaves him only partially functional, Hoover falls into his memories instead of staying in reality.
Tolson calls him back by saying, “You can lie to everyone else, the whole world, for the sake of yourself, for the sake of the bureau, but you cannot lie to me.”
Such a statement shocks Hoover back into the real world, reminding him that no one, and nothing, can be trusted, not even his own memory.
As Hoover says, “We must never forget our history. We must never lower our guard.” Not even to let ourselves in.