#24 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
I have a thing against biopics, but this one about the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover actually sidesteps a lot of my issues in a creative way while also leaning into some of the more standard tropes. At least Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t play J. Edgar Hoover when he was nine years old. Clint Eastwood brings his polished professionalism to the film as director, filming the script by Dustin Lance Black with his normal high contrast visual style and strong directing of actors. It’s an interesting film more than an involving one, though, a film that does want to try and dig into its central character to not the most convincing results.
J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) is nearing the end of his life and career and brings in a series of junior FBI agents to help him dictate his side of the story of the FBI. This feels like an excuse to run through the entirety of Hoover’s career in the Bureau of Investigation as well as the FBI, but there’s actually a surprising amount of focus to it. From the beginning of his time in the Bureau under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) in 1919 when Bolshevik terrorists were targeting American public officials through the trial of the century resolving the mystery of the Lindbergh baby, the film is really only concerned with the first sixteen years of Hoover’s governmental career, which is a long time but since it’s only really focused around two things (the fight against communist agitators in the early 20s and the effort to gain more police powers from Congress, using the Lindbergh baby as the catalyst for the legislation) there’s a surprising clarity to the action.
Those early efforts get contrasted with his developing personal life with three people. His mother, Annie (Judi Dench), is probably the most obvious element in the puzzle of the life of Hoover that the movie presents. She’s the source of his desire to hide his true self, especially through her small soliloquy about “daffodil men”. In a film that largely embraces the idea of trying to present a complex man as simply and objectively as possible, Annie represents the opposite approach, and she feels like an attempt to satisfy people who think there needs to be an easy explanation to a complex man’s actions like Oliver Stone presented in both Nixon and W. The other two people are Hoover’s long-term secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), a woman he tries to start a personal relationship with but discovers is more appropriately a confidant and fellow spook at his side, and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a junior agent in the 20s that Hoover brings onto staff despite Tolson’s lack of desire for permanence in the Bureau due to Hoover’s implicit attraction to the man.
Together, Hoover and his compatriots force their way into increasing power through manipulation on several fronts. The first is the manipulation of situation, especially around the Bolshevik terrorists that allows Hoover to increase general government power to deal with radical foreigners within American borders. The second is the manipulation of public perception with Hoover at the center of the FBI’s image as he steadily helps it grow from jeers at the sight of his face before a preview of the James Cagney film Public Enemy to having Cagney star as the titular agent in G-Men a few years later after the fall of Prohibition as well as comic books that feature Hoover as the star agent of the whole bureau, personally arresting some of the most famous criminals.
This beginning of the Bureau is held up against Hoover’s final days (really years since it goes from 1963 to 1972) and his declining ability to manipulate those in power against his confidential files of information that he’d been collecting for decades. It’s also where Hoover begins to question his influence. Despite his efforts to squash the rise of communism, Eleanor Roosevelt still had a communist lover and the sixties saw a similar rise in lawlessness as the late 1910s had.
It’s that where I think the movie is the most interesting. In the 20s, with extremely limited powers, Hoover was able to take a serious bite out of communist infiltration, but his focus after that became about consolidating power for himself (no one shares power in Washington he tells an agent). That which he seemed to have considered the most important became excuses for lining his own fiefdom with increased power rather than actually addressing that which he thought was necessary to preserving the America he wanted to maintain. On top of that, his efforts at consolidating power and fighting the enemy ended up weakening the American model on its own.
The movie isn’t a diatribe against the man, but it does somewhat dispassionately show how he was a destructive force against his own stated goals. I would like it more if it tried to limit itself to that view of him, but the personal relationships with both his mother and Tolson occupy a lot of screentime in an effort to explain him more fully as a man. The relationship with Annie feels somewhat rote, especially after her death when Hoover puts on her dress, and the relationship with Tolson feels ancillary rather than necessary, the sort of thing that’s more of a footnote in the tale of Hoover’s running of the Bureau than a key element. His running of the bureau also ends up feeling dispassionate rather than immediate, so there’s a certain distance to the whole thing. I also wish the “modern day” stuff was more focused around a single event, but it moves from gaining dirt on Kennedy to the Martin Luther King letter to his meeting with Nixon, a period of about 9 years, that, I think, a more focused subplot might have helped to contrast more fully with his early successes. However, the film feels like it needs to get to his death, and that was nine years after the King letter.
So, I like the film. I think it’s a handsome, well-acted film with DiCaprio serving as a solid foundation on which the film is built. The makeup effects got some criticism upon the film’s release, but the stuff on DiCaprio and Watts is really good. The stuff on Hammer looks off, though. I think the script has a surprising amount of clarity around what it’s trying to do, but it needed another draft to consolidate some stuff and deny it some of the more Hollywood biopic conventions.