WARNING: Do not continue reading unless you want to be spoiled on key plot points of the movie, J. Edgar.
This movie got a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes, so naturally I had to go and see for myself, seeing as how I usually disagree with the meter. The movie didn’t seem like it would have a lot of unnecessary violence/shooting/gory moments, so I knew I could probably handle it. I’ve labeled this entry as having “significant” spoilers vs. “major” spoilers because my major spoiler entries tend to be a tad more detailed than this one is going to be; almost more of a live shot-by-shot than just giving you major plot highlights.
Before I go any further, I want to be completely blatant about two things, which kind of go hand in hand. The first being, after having watched this movie, I think I may know why this movie got such a low rating. It is a little less about John Edgar Hoover’s life (which is probably what most of the audience walks in expecting/hoping for), and more about the speculation theory that J. Edgar Hoover and his right hand man, Clyde Tolson, were secretly gay lovers. That’s right–for those who thought when Clint Eastwood was kidding about giving a nod to that theory, well, he wasn’t. In fact, I was surprised how central that theory was to the plot. To be honest, I actually found it interesting. I thought it was done a lot more tastefully than Brokeback Mountain, which I thought was complete junk–sorry Brokeback fans. I say this because I have some gay friends that are very dear to me, and if I’m going to pick a movie that gives a better (less stereotypical) representation of what their relationships are like, it would be this one. I think it showed that you don’t have to be extremely flamboyant to be gay, and honestly, there are just as many masculine gay men as there are flamboyant ones.
(You know, I also had to give the relationship development between the two men some credit too. In my opinion it didn’t seem rushed, forced, or too over-the-top. I think if it was, people would have walked out–but people didn’t. I gathered the sense the audience I was with was uncomfortable at times, but they seemed more contemplative than disgusted. Which makes sense; Clint Eastwood, in my opinion, has always had that particular sense of humor–call it old man’s humor or the humor of some people in his generation, but parts of the movie seemed to be saying, “I’m not going to be in your face right away, but we will eventually get to the point where I am, and you will be uncomfortable.”)
My point though, is that while yes, I can see the argument about why some critics complained that the movie did not do J. Edgar justice, I think at the same time, they were probably very uncomfortable with the whole gay bit. I definitely felt that people were uncomfortable in the theater I was in too when the more heavily gay toned scenes came about. People may be more accepting of gays than they were even just five years ago, but I still don’t think many people are ready to watch a gay love story unfold on screen like they would watch a heterosexual couple go at it like bunnies without so much as batting an eye.
That being said, here’s the second thing (if you haven’t gathered already from the above paragraphs, anyway): if you’re anti-gay, homophobic, don’t feel comfortable watching two men acting as gay lovers and being affectionate with one another (with some subtle, but also some very blatant) physical and verbal interactions on screen, then this movie is NOT for you. I repeat, if this is the case for you, then avoid this movie at all costs; you’re not going to be happy.
For those still interested, below are some spoilers, thoughts, and my review, as per usual. As always, those interested in just the review itself, please scroll to the very bottom of this entry.
Immediately as the movie started, I was reminded of several other movies at once. The narration and lengthy feel to the movie definitely had me thinking about Brad Pitt’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I was also reminded some of Ides of March, and The Conspirator. All these movies were shot with a very dark scheme, not to mention the subject matter in all those movies were pretty melancholy. The way Eastwood had the scenes ordered too reminded me a lot of his Gran Torino.
Anyway, the movie starts with DiCaprio (as J. Edgar) narrating snapshots of his life for a book that he’s having people type up for him in his office. Now here is where I’m going to be perfectly honest; aside from the dominant focus of Hoover’s relationship with Tolson this movie, the entire movie is just bits and clips of J. Edgar’s life. As long as this movie is (I believe it’s 2 hours and 17 minutes), I don’t think you could honestly do anyone’s life, not even yours or mine, in just that span of time. When you’re doing a biopic of a lifetime, a movie is probably not the best way to do it–a documentary series or docudrama series would probably be the better option. In fact, I think that this story would have been a lot more interesting and well rounded, had it done that, but I digress.
So the movie opens up with J. Edgar narrating about how the FBI came about in the first place. One of the first events that J. Edgar recounts is the threat of communism in the United States, and we see an explosion that takes place at a high-ranking official’s house. A much younger J. Edgar (I’m not sure how I feel about the make-up in this movie, but I’ll get to that in my review portion), bikes to the senator’s house. (At least, I think it was the senator, my memory is kind of hazy for that part.) Anyway, he’s at the crime scene and he explains that back then, the police didn’t collect evidence or even investigate the crime scene as it was initially, thus obstructing the evidence. If I recall what he said correctly, they basically just tossed the evidence.
I thought it was interesting that the cops didn’t even stop J. Edgar when he picked up a few sheets of the paper on the ground that the terrorist left behind and just biked away; I thought for sure they were going to approach him when they asked the senator who J. Edgar was (and the man said J. Edgar worked for him), but no one seemed suspicious enough about him. Anyway, J. Edgar explains he took the papers because he was convinced that something could be done with them; that one would theoretically be able to catch a criminal with evidence such as these papers.
Somewhere in between all of this, J. Edgar becomes acquainted with a secretary named Helen Gandy, who eventually becomes a very key player. (I absolutely loved the way Naomi Watts played this role.) Gandy becomes J. Edgar’s personal assistant, and she is one of the very few people that J. Edgar feels he can trust 100%. He flirts with her at first, but nothing ends up developing further than a long-lasting friendship. She is entrusted with all of the FBI’s secrets, but I’ll get more into that later.
Back to the case. My memory is kind of fuzzy as to how this first case plays out, but he somehow manages to convince a panel (made up of members of Congress, I believe?) for the opportunity to raid potential rebel centers. Eventually, he gets his wish, gathers a few men and raids these centers, leading to the deportation of a good number of communist rebels. J. Edgar’s success leads to the firing of everyone in his department except for himself, and J. Edgar is then given a leadership position. He then creates a new team of agents; it’s the beginnings of the FBI and a forensics department. With the help of Gandy, J. Edgar hand selects what he thinks is a group of the best and brightest agents, eliminating any applicants that appear may not be willing to put their job before all else; the only exception being Clyde Tolson.
In this story, J. Edgar meets Tolson at a restaurant. Perhaps it’s because I knew about the gay supplement to the story before walking in, but boy did I catch the meaning of that scene right away as soon as I saw it. In fact, I was kind of impressed at the chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer on screen from that point forward. I honestly did not see possibility of their acting complementing each other the way it did. Anyway, they exchange very telling glances, and then business cards. While going through applications later on, J. Edgar asks Gandy to look up Tolson’s file specifically. According to the file, Tolson is everything J. Edgar is not looking for; he is only interested in becoming a member of the Bureau to gain experience he can apply to a future private law practice, so consequently he expresses no interest in a prolonged stay with the Bureau, and oh by the way, he also shows no interest in women. I can’t explain how amused I was by the reaction DiCaprio gave J. Edgar to that one; that by itself seemed to be the deciding factor. So an interview is set up.
At this point, I really wanted to burst out laughing because of how the theater I was in just got quiet, like people were starting to realize where this film may (and eventually would) be going, but Eastwood babies the audience a while longer with these subtle throws.
Then comes the interview. J. Edgar is doing push-ups when Gandy walks in with Tolson close behind; J. Edgar immediately jumps up, closes the open window of his room, and wipes his brow. He then starts talking to Tolson and offers him a seat whilst taking one himself. Tolson seems incredibly amused at how out of breath J. Edgar is. Tolson then goes to the window, reopening it, and giving J. Edgar a handkerchief to wipe his brow with again. That, in hindsight, was probably Tolson making a pass at J. Edgar. Anyway, J. Edgar accepts the handkerchief, and then tells Tolson he needs someone with more dedication to fill the position. Tolson admits he does have plans to open a law practice, but that he could be convinced otherwise. (Yes. He was making an innuendo.) Needless to say, Tolson gets hired.
The next big event is the second case that pops up, “the case that changed everything,” according to J. Edgar. Basically, a young child was kidnapped and J. Edgar & Co. jump on the opportunity to try and find the killer. This case becomes opportunity for J. Edgar to establish some laws about criminal justice (such as not touching the scene of a crime until it’s been completely examined, creating a law against kidnapping, etc.) as well as a chance to grow his forensics team. He hires the help of someone who is an expert in paper and handwriting, as well as an expert in wood. Together, they are able to figure out who the kidnapper was. The body of the baby boy is also found later, just a stone’s throw away from the home of Charles Lindbergh–the father of the baby. The results of this case also gives J. Edgar the rights to fingerprints of all the people in the nation, so that the FBI may have a better chance at finding and capturing criminals.
People start taking the FBI more seriously–because at the beginning, things like the subject of forensics was just considered to be a flawed theory and not basis for factual evidence–and the trio (J. Edgar, Tolson, and Gandy) are starting to feel the fruits of their labor. The FBI grows, they catch more criminals, and everything just seems to be going well. There is a minor hiccup where the panel J. Edgar reports to (mostly when he needs something) challenges him because it seems J. Edgar has been using some funding to promote the FBI and his own image as a hero, when in fact he has never done any of the arrests himself. That plot point quickly gets brushed under the rug though, and there’s a minor couple-esque squabble between J. Edgar and Tolson.
Oh, which reminds me; I’ve seen criticism of the line where Tolson tells J. Edgar that no matter what happens, whether they agree or disagree, the two of them should always eat lunch and dinner together. I’ve read things where people say that they think it’s weird to think anyone would talk like this. Personally? I think it’s sad that more people don’t. You could read it as gay, given the context of this movie, but I read it as a sign of true friendship; that no matter what, you’re going to do your best to stay friends. I think back then too, friendships just meant more than they do now. I’m not putting everyone in a melting pot, I’m just saying that the values of this generation are very different from preceding ones. I know, I know, that’s said every generation, but I honestly think the disparity between the current generation and the generation even just before this one, is huge. Anyway, I digress again.
There are three very big physical gay scenes in this film. The first is when J. Edgar takes Tolson’s hand in the back of a cab. They’re about to go to a club, but J. Edgar whispers they need to drop his mother off at a hotel first. It is clear from his mother’s reaction that she seems to know what’s going on between the two men. Later, at the club, J. Edgar is doing his thing, charming the ladies; however, when he is asked to dance, he is immediately turned off (partially because he’s gay in this film and also apparently he can’t dance either), and he starts sputtering as he leaves. He then vents to his mother later about how he can’t dance, and then pretty much comes out of the closet to her. His mother seems to imply that she’s very well aware, but she will not accept his preferred orientation; she says she would rather have a dead son than a gay one.
The second scene happens sometime in the middle of the film, as the FBI seems to be in its prime; J. Edgar basically asks Tolson to go on a sort of get-away trip with him to the racetracks. While they are there, J. Edgar seems to be taking what his mother says to heart and begins to contemplate a “Mrs. Hoover” coming into the picture, which Tolson does not take well at all, and is very, very jealous. They fight and tousle on the ground, and then yes, there is a bit of a prolonged kiss. Nothing too graphic though, mind, they just press lips together for about a minute or so, and the shot of the kiss is taken from above, so for all you know, Hammer is just hovering over DiCaprio for that scene. Anyway, aside from the verbally flirtatious exchanges between the two, this is probably as “heated” as this film gets between the two characters.
Focusing on the other aspect of the story a bit; Tolson strokes at the racetrack he and J. Edgar like to frequent, and his ability to contribute to the Bureau greatly diminishes, now starting to be too tired to go to work. Not too long after, Kennedy is shot, and Richard Nixon has taken over office. J. Edgar is summoned by the president (which is apparently a routine occurrence for J. Edgar–with every presidency, he goes in and basically shakes whoever is president up with his secret files on them, so that they may be in the palm of his hand), and J. Edgar ends up not doing his usual thing. When Tolson asks him about this later, J. Edgar basically implies that times are changing; the respect for the Bureau is changing. He starts freaking out because he’s realizing everything he’s built may come crumbling down on him. (This is especially illustrated when he tries to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. from taking the Nobel Peace Prize and fails.) Tolson even suggests that the both of them retire, but J. Edgar is too much of a workaholic for that. He does seem to take into consideration that he may be fired from his position though, so he asks Gandy for a favor, which is to destroy all copies of his personal secret files, should anything happen to him.
This leads us to the ending of the movie, which is probably a squirmer too, for some. J. Edgar and Tolson have one last dinner together, and there’s a mirroring scene of the whole handkerchief thing from the beginning, and it seems like J. Edgar’s implying it was love at first sight for him, but I could be reading too much into that. Anyway, he goes home and he dies of a heart attack. As soon as she hears the news, Gandy immediately locks the door of the office and starts shredding all of J. Edgar’s personal files. (I found it incredibly amusing that Nixon’s people didn’t think to hunt down Gandy; I mean, she was like another right hand to J. Edgar, but perhaps they didn’t think she’d know anything because she was just a secretary.) Tolson also gets the news, and goes to J. Edgar’s home. He basically sees the half-naked corpse of J. Edgar on the ground and loses it; he takes a blanket from J. Edgar’s bed and covers him with it before cradling him and crying. Later on, I’m assuming when the body is removed, he is seen reading a letter filled with J. Edgar’s affections for him and smiles.
The movie closes out with some text epilogue, stating that only very few of J. Edgar’s original files were ever found, and that most of them were lost. It also says that Tolson inherited J. Edgar’s home, moved in, and accepted the U.S. flag off of J. Edgar’s coffin. This wasn’t said in the film, but apparently he died in 1975, so that would make it 3 years later.
Anyway, everything I’ve written up until now are all the major points, but as I said before, they are not the entirety of the story. A lot of it was just the development of the relationship between J. Edgar and Tolson, so I’ve left a lot of that out. If you’re curious about all that, then go see it, but I’m pretty sure I touched on all the points that matter.
So onto the review bit.
I will give the movie credit for its old guy humor, so to speak. DiCaprio and Hammer’s interpretation of J. Edgar and Tolston as lovers was actually kind of hilarious; if we forget about the fact that they’re playing gay men for a second, when you just look at it, it really just seemed like one was playing the cranky role and the other one was just constantly taking the abuse and dealing with it. It’s almost like a House-Wilson effect from the show House, M.D., if you know what I mean. And while J. Edgar was portrayed as a jerk-off in some situations, I didn’t feel that I could totally hate the interpretation of his character either; I think DiCaprio made his character tough because Judi Dench made J. Edgar’s mother tough–so I suppose it seems only natural her son would follow suit in that sense. These two men were definitely portrayed as a dynamic duo until the end; definitely can’t have one without the other.
There’s one thing that majorly killed me in this movie though, and it was the accents, which I thought were awful. In fact, I think DiCaprio (which I was sort of surprised about, because I feel like he usually seems to do well with period pieces) and Jeffrey Donovan’s accents tied for worst accent. Now I love Donovan and his acting in Burn Notice, don’t get me wrong, but his accent made me want to just melt in my seat and hide. Whoever did his makeup also didn’t seem to do a very good job, in my opinion; he had a ridiculously sized nose that didn’t look like it was a part of his face.
There was also one major part of the movie’s ending that seemed a little sloppy to me; there was a moment where I felt kind of cheated because it turns out the book that J. Edgar was narrating throughout the film was mostly spin, meaning that only half of the things in the movie that happened didn’t actually happen. It’s one of those things they tell you in creative writing classes not to do because your readers will feel cheated if they find out everything your character went through was all “just a dream,” which is sort of what they seemed to be saying here.
As for what I’d rate the movie? Well, here’s the usual breakdown using my newly created movie reviews guide:
Re-watch Factor: ***
FINAL VERDICT: C+
I think I’ve pretty much said all that I needed to say about this movie. There were definitely flaws in the movie that would prevent me from buying the DVD, but I wouldn’t be averse to watching it again, although I would prefer to watch it again via DVD rental or stream.
I can see this movie being appealing to a specific demographic and to people with a particular taste in movies–meaning not always mainstream. It’s not a movie that necessarily means to appeal to the masses, so I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it was only a hit with a very limited scope. That being said, I think it is worth a shot seeing in theaters once, but if you had a hard time with movies like Benjamin Button, The Conspirator, and Ides of March, then you’re probably going to have a difficult time sitting through this one as well.
There’s a few more entries that I want to write, but I’m not sure if I’ll get around to them all today because I’m actually feeling a bit under the weather, so we’ll see how it goes.
Until next time.