Loenardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover. (PHOTO SUPPLIED)
By Bernie Jablonski
Whether it was fair or not, when I got home from seeing J. EDGAR, Clint Eastwood’s rendering of and speculations on the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I sat down and watched THE AVIATOR. To be honest, my main reason for watching Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes was to see if the makeup crew in Scorsese’s picture handled the makeup of both movies’ star, Leonardo DiCaprio, any better.
Now, if you’ve seen THE AVIATOR (which I hadn’t), you’ll know right away that that movie only covers Hughes’ life from 1927 to 1947. We never get to see the frail, Nosferatu-like shell of a man that Hughes became, although by the time DiCaprio has that Hughes moustache, he does resemble the man himself. We’ll return to the makeup comparison in a bit, but one striking comparison that I did notice in watching THE AVIATOR right after J. EDGAR is the strong difference in mood. Where Scorsese’s movie is bright and thrilling (yet truthful to the man being portrayed, I think), Eastwood’s is dark and deliberate.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even though I think that Scorsese is the superior, more innovative filmmaker, Eastwood has always been a great storyteller, and “dark” has sometimes been brilliant in his hands (witness MILLION DOLLAR BABY, which even though it plummets in mood from a high place, it never loses its soulfulness). J. EDGAR is an engrossing film that remains so, in spite of its desire to be comprehensive (and its length).
One thing that buoys up the film and keeps us interested is the achronological order, which uses gentle but clever transitions to keep the story well-knit as it jumps around in time. Using the old device of an aged man dictating the story of his life to a writer who will set down that story in a book, the movie’s first impression is that of its subject is that of an older, feared man, dealing with a situation that puts him in a bad light. We then jump to the incident in 1919, attacks on the houses of prominent politicians, including the Attorney General, that catapult Hoover into his long career.
Hoover is an up-and-comer. We never lose sight of the fact, as we were informed in the opening scene, that the man is very sure of himself and is not above bending the law, sometimes crossing into very dark areas. With DiCaprio consistently keeping this tone alive, we are shown, in a grand mosaic, Hoover’s participation in many of the events that made him and the F.B.I. famous. The movie doesn’t glorify anybody, but it doesn’t turn Hoover into a villain devoid of empathy. A tragic hero? That might be overstating the case a bit.
Some of the events portrayed are familiar, some not so much, but we seem to get additional insight on a lot of events in U. S. history. I knew about Emma Goldman, but I didn’t know that the deportation of this “anarchist” (sorry about the quotes, but I started using them with this word ever since I read about the Haymarket Riot) actually set a precedent. I hadn’t realized that the appearance of his agents was so important to Hoover in the early days of the organization, nor in his refusal to accept agents that were not in it for life. As the film wanders back and forth through time, we see, in one extended scene and in one brief, telling one, the acrimonious relationship Hoover had with Robert Kennedy (played by BURN NOTICE’s Jeffrey Donovan). The Lindbergh kidnapping is given a generous amount of time, and in that sequence we experience the irony of forensic science becoming an important tool in fighting crime, but also the tragically blind faith put into the obtaining results through it.
Hoover battles gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s when the public is in love with the mystique of them, and is triumphant when movies like PUBLIC ENEMY, with James Cagney, are replaced at the box office with those like G-MEN, with Cagney in this new role. The point is made, however, that Hoover was also a self-promoting publicity machine; when a Congressional hearing asks him if he has ever made an arrest and he realizes that he can’t say he has, he jumps in to make the arrest of several famous gangsters after other agents have the criminal under their control.
Other unflattering episodes are revealed or strongly implied, such as Hoover’s attempt to deprive, through totally unscrupulous means, Martin Luther King of the Nobel Peace Prize, or of his holding onto a report for a rainy day, as it were, about the wife of one of the Presidents. And, of course, those “private” files he held on thousands of Americans…
Woven into the tapestry of Hoover’s professional life are two strong personal narratives, and the poetic license here also seems to work itself in seamlessly, so that even if we protest that we don’t actually know about these events, they don’t seem outrageously inaccurate from what we know.
As we’ve seen often in so many film biographies (including THE AVIATOR, actually) the main character’s mother has a tremendous influence on the evolution of the character as a man. Judi Densch is very effective here, seen in dimly lit domestic scenes, helping her son with her stutter (which comes upon Hoover, both as a man and as an adult, under stress). Di Caprio, and the script, handle the stutter bit beautifully, using it sparingly, and giving the characterization the leavening that it needs to prevent it from being one-sided. In another memorable scene, Densch has a great monologue revealing her intense homophobia to her son, a speech that no doubt sinks deep into his psyche.
And yes, that last statement leads naturally to the question we all have going into the movie: Will J. EDGAR deal with the rumored gay relationship he is said to have had with Clyde Tolson, the at first uninspired agent that Hoover fast-tracked into a career leading to Associate Director? It does. Like the many plot threads in this movie, the Tolson story is interwoven early into the film, with the friendship developing into a genuine bond and then a passionate, mostly understated (to us) need for each other. There is one quite dramatic scene illustrating the true nature of the relationship, accompanied by scenes of a much gentler, more subtle implication. Like all the other stories going on in the movie, this segment is not a segment at all, but is well-integrated into the rest of the movie.
Even though I liked DiCaprio better as Hughes, I thought he was very credible here, especially in the scenes demonstrating his zeal for both his beliefs in how to deal with crime and in his relationships. He doesn’t really have that Broderick Crawford bulk I’ve always (perhaps mistakenly) with Hoover, but that’s just me. With that baby face of his, it’s an act of faith to believe in him as an older man, although he Method-acts his way through it well. His makeup as an older man sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t, but the acting helps carry it over. Armie Hammer (of SOCIAL NETWORK fame, although the face-to-body ratio here is 1:1) has a real chemistry with DiCaprio, and their scenes together are among the film’s best, but the makeup is also not always effective: at one point it looks like a mask has been pulled over Hammer’s face. It certainly doesn’t dim his performance, though.
Outside of Judi Densch, the woman that ages particularly well, in appearance as well as performance, is Naomi Watts. This beautiful Brit is perfect as Helen Gandy, a young secretary at the Bureau of Investigation that rejects Hoover’s advances, but remains a friend and his secretary throughout his life. A sense of tireless loyalty imbues her performance, leading her to cross over to the dark side to defend Hoover after his death.
This movie works because of its performances and its tapestry of events, rather than a bullet-point outline of Hoover’s life. Although the appearance of Richard Nixon (Richard Shyer) evoked some well-deserved laughter from my boomer companions at the matinee, it is serious and dark in subject matter, but always gripping.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.