Directed by Clint Eastwood
This two hour and forty minute movie covers the entire career of J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Leonardo DiCaprio does an excellent job portraying this complex man. The story begins with J. Edgar working for the Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (which pre-dated the existence of the F.B.I.) When extremists detonate numerous bombs, including one at the home of Attorney General Palmer, Hoover was involved in the investigation. The next Attorney General, Harlan Stone, tasked Hoover with running a new Bureau of Investigation. He was given total control and wide ranging powers. The movie follows his career as the new F.B.I. tries to control “enemies within”: first gangsters, then Communists and mobsters. Hoover was relentless in his pursuit of anyone or any group he perceived as working against his country. He kept private files which he often used to blackmail celebrities and politicians (most notably John F. Kennedy). There is an extended segment about midway through the movie dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932. Using forensic techniques new to the time, Hoover and the F.B.I. eventually arrested a German immigrant named Bruno Richard Hauptman. Hauptman was tried, convicted and executed for the crime, although doubts still exist as to his guilt.
The movie also tries to sort out Hoover’s private life. He was deeply emotionally dependent on his mother, was awkward at best around women and found his only satisfying relationship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson. They worked closely and also dined and vacationed together frequently. The movie briefly mentions a relationship between Hoover and actress Dorothy Lamour, but focuses mainly on the presumed homosexual relationship with Tolson.
This movie is fairly slow moving, especially given the subject matter. The movie is ambitious but tries to do too much. A life and a career as complex as these just isn’t easily summarized. The movie lacks focus, at once trying to illustrate Hoover’s relentless pursuit of any perceived “subversive” and his abuse of powers while also trying to show the audience enough psychological background to explain his tortured personal life. It also helps to have some knowledge of the politics of the times. In the movie confrontations in Bobby Kennedy’s office (who, as Attorney General was Hoover’s boss) are portrayed which don’t make much sense without knowledge of Hoover’s hatred of and ongoing battles with the Kennedys. It is very well acted, especially by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, Judi Dench as his mother Annie and Naomi Watts as his longtime personal assistant Helen Gandy. I enjoyed the movie despite its flaws.