J. Edgar

Movie Information

The Story: The private and public story of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The Lowdown: A close-to-great film blessed with terrific central performances -- and one that manages to tackle potentially lurid material with tact and understanding.
Genre: Biographical Drama
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas
Rated: R

For those who don’t already know it, I want to say straight off that I am not one of Clint Eastwood’s greatest admirers. Generally, I admire the fact that he makes his films his way without any attempt to change with the taste of the times. My problem is quite simply that I don’t tend to care for the way he makes films, and I find many of them absurdly overrated. In the case of J. Edgar, however, Eastwood has made a film that I almost unhesitatingly admire. If it weren’t for the appalling old age make-up on Armie Hammer (which looks like something out of a bad horror movie) and Eastwood’s insistence on one of his “decorative piano” musical scores, I’d remove the qualifiers. Overall, it’s a brilliantly crafted and superbly acted film. Not surprisingly, I suppose, I find myself praising Eastwood for a film that is hardly universally admired.

But then with J. Edgar, Eastwood is working in the much-maligned and almost equally misunderstood realm of the biopic—a genre that is bound to displease a lot of people by its very nature. The problem starts with the very concept of trying to capture some sense of a person’s life in two hours or so of a movie. The notion that it’s possible to include everything and be 100-percent accurate is ludicrous. That doesn’t even happen in a full textbook biography, and it’s not—or shouldn’t be—the aim of the biopic. What the biopic—the good ones anyway—strives to do is give the filmmaker’s vision of the essence of the subject, and the filmmaker’s reaction to the subject. And that, I think, J. Edgar does, though it might be fairer to say in this case that it’s the combination of the filmmaker and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

That said, it needs to be understood that what you’re getting is a subjective portrait—one derived from known fact and speculation based on what is known. In this case, that’s even trickier, since so little about J. Edgar Hoover can be called “known fact.” In this case, a good deal of the speculation comes from the point of view that “This is the only way the story makes sense” within the confines of those known facts. The results, however, are guaranteed to not entirely satisfy either Hoover’s supporters or his detractors. Those wanting a hero and those wanting a monster will find neither in Eastwood’s film. Stripped to its fundamentals, the film is essentially a combination of a very sad love story and the tragic—or maybe pathetic—story of a man so involved in living his own self-created myth that there’s little or nothing of the man himself left. By the end, it’s not even clear how much of the truth of his own life is known to Hoover.

The film—which manages to traverse seven decades with surprising clarity and speed—presents Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a deeply closeted gay man whose only meaningful relationships were with his controlling mother (Judi Dench), his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), and—perhaps most importantly—his own public image. That image—along with his mother and her “I’d rather have a dead son than a ‘daffodil’” attitude—is, in fact, central to his closeted nature as presented by Eastwood and Black. Is it factual? No, not in the concrete sense, it isn’t. It’s not a reading with which I’m prepared to take issue, because it’s the only way the man’s story makes sense to me. What needs to be understood is that the portrait is not sensationalistic—and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sympathetic, neither would I call it unsympathetic.

The structure of the film is very shrewd in that it’s a combination of what “really” happened, and a detailed series of flashbacks drawn from the aged Hoover dictating his story to a series of FBI agents. These flashbacks are, by their very nature, not entirely reliable. But it’s not until the very end of the film that the difference between reality and Hoover’s memories becomes clear—and it doesn’t become clear through any fault of Hoover’s, but rather from Tolson pulling the rug out from under the supposed facts. Yet this is not done cruelly, and it is, in fact, followed by the film’s most genuinely touching moment—one that contains the only overt phyical expression of love from Hoover in the entire film. In context, it’s heartbreaking and the moment that the film and its “hero” becomes human. Rated R for brief strong language.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “J. Edgar

  1. Xanadon't

    Great review. I didn’t exactly fall in love with this movie, but I think many of the reviews out there completely missed the ways this film starts to become something special.

  2. Marie Anne

    I totally agree. I found the many of the critics to be unfairly harsh over this film. I really enjoyed this film and Leonardo acting was simply amazing.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Great review.

    Thank you.

    I didn’t exactly fall in love with this movie

    I’m not sure I quite fell in love with it, but it was a near thing.

  4. trex

    I loved this film and I dont understand why your contemporaries are giving less than good reviews. I walked out wanting to see more, a 2nd part.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Ive heard the cross dressing scene is very tastefully done

    I’m not even sure it qualifies as cross-dressing in the usual sense.

  6. chumsleybaby

    So please don’t alter it and be misleading and be fair give the actors the recognition and credits that they deserve and have worked hard for.

  7. Andrew Leal

    Err, that’s not being misleading or anything, chumsley. Credits in ads and such reflect a combination of the actor’s agents and negotiations and *sometimes* prominence (many times, they’ll even be alphabetical) and something like “And Judi Dench” is used to acknowledge a major player they’re saving until the end. If Mr. Hanke was transcribing the film credits, then yes, they’d need to be in that order. Instead, he’s listing the principals and the order reflects either who has more screen time or the order in which he thought to mention them.

    It’s not taking anything away from anyone. And it’s something every film critic, from Leonard Maltin to Roger Ebert, does in their print or capsule reviews or in their anthologies of all purpose reviews (usually in books that focus on, say, the full filmography of an actor or director or studio, then they try to include the credits order; and even *that* order often can differ from the order included in “Cast” later on). Even books of cast lists like in the Universal Studios book sometimes reflect on-screen credits order (and then included the many unbilled players from the call sheets), sometimes they didn’t. It only matters if the purpose is specifically to transcribe the full credits and reflect on-screen order (in which case, something like the British film journal ”Sight and Sound”, which also has full spoiler-riddled synopses for each movie, would be more to your liking, and they also transcribe the technical credits as well).

  8. Ken Hanke

    So please don’t alter it and be misleading and be fair give the actors the recognition and credits that they deserve and have worked hard for

    What are you? An agent? My list is actually based on the amount of screen time and contributions to the film, not on the contract their agents negotiated. Would you dispute that Armie Hammer has more to do than Naomi Watts? Or that Judi Dench is more central to the film than Josh Lucas? For that matter, the “and Judi Dench” is what you call “special billing” — you know, like “and Lon Chaney as The Wolf Man.” Do you go around policing cast lists on The Wolf Man that list Chaney first?

  9. chumsleybaby

    In “Satisfaction (aka Girls of Summer) (1988)”, Julia Roberts had the most screentime but she was billed third. Justine Bateman who had only a small appearance was listed as the lead character.

    In “The Town”, the female lead Rebecca Hall was billed below Blake Lively who was in the film for only fifteen minutes.

    In “Collateral”, Jamie Foxx was on the screen for almost the entire movie, but Tom Cruise was billed as the lead.

    “Children of Men” billed Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine as its main stars. In actuality Julianne Moore’s character got shot and died about 20 minutes into the film, while Micheal Caine only had two scenes, and died at the end of the second.

    Liv Tyler had third billing for each part of The Lord of the Rings, despite 10-15 minutes in each.

    Marlon Brando received top billing for “Apocalypse Now”, despite appearing in the film for less than ten minutes. Also second-billed Robert Duvall was on screen for less than 15 minutes out of a 3-to-4 hour movie. Martin Sheen, who had the most screentime, was billed third.

    Sean Penn was billed second in “The Tree of Life” but was in about five minutes of the entire movie. Jessica Chastain, who had many more scenes on par with top-billed Brad Pitt was billed third.

    Jamie Lee Curtis had top billing in “Halloween: Resurrection” even though her character appeared for a mere ten minutes of screentime.

    “Once upon a Time in Mexico” was listed as starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek but Banderas only had a few scenes.

  10. Ken Hanke

    And your point is?

    Bela Lugosi got co-star billing in Black Friday and is in 8 of the movie’s 70 minutes. This is not a new practice. It’s entirely grounded in what names will have the biggest draw and who has the best agent. At the same time, Sidney Fox is billed above Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue, but no one ever lists it that way.

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