If you ask J. Edgar Hoover, he'd be happy to tell you the facts about himself: He singlehandedly created and helmed the most powerful law enforcement agency in the world. He pulled the doubters along with him through sheer force of will. Without him, fingerprinting might still be ignored. Modern forensics couldn't be hoped for. And Communism? Well, the Bolsheviks would be running the place.
However, Hoover would admit, if you pressed him, that almost 50 years of public service can wear a man down. And as they do, he starts finding it a little harder to keep up with these young kids who think they know it all. He'd admit, then, that things can be so … frustrating.
Hoover served through eight different presidencies. "No one freely shares power in Washington, D.C.," he maintains onscreen. But he knows that "information is power." And it's the bits and pieces, the details, the secrets that he's collected and kept hidden away over the years that have kept him in power. More than that, though, he'd want you to know, those secrets have kept the nation safe.
But it's not 1924 anymore. It's 1970. And these days, even a hero can be painted to look like a villain. Somebody's got to record the truth—well, most of it anyway—for posterity. People need to understand … the Lindbergh baby case … the G-men … the professional policies … the procedures … the science. That's what the FBI is all about. That's what he built.
So bring in that guy with the typewriter. (Or maybe the movie camera.) The well-cut fellow with enough brain cells to know what's up and what's not. The one with the earnest look. He seems trustworthy enough to put the story down as it should be told.
And J. Edgar is ready to tell it.
There have been derogatory claims made about J. Edgar Hoover's crime-fighting methods and personal life over the years, and this film does indulge some of them. But it spends equal time making it clear that this man had a deep love for his nation and a passion for instituting the rule of law. Hoover was also a very inventive man who pulled together as many new ideas and technologies as he could to help bolster the government's abilities to fight crime and the rising evil of the age. An example: When Charles Lindbergh's child goes missing, an incensed Hoover makes it his unwavering quest to find the criminal behind the kidnapping.
The FBI director also made it very clear to his agents that their personal conduct (and even choice of suits) must be above reproach. Realizing that public perception can often make a difference in solving crimes, Hoover pushed the image of the FBI agent—shifting the public's attention and adoration (even on movie screens) from mobsters to his G-men. He promoted his belief that "When morals decline and good men do nothing, evil flourishes."
Whatever else Hoover's relationship may have been with his top assistant Clyde Tolson, there's no question that the two men respected and were devoted to each other. When Tolson shows up at Hoover's house after hearing of his death, he covers up Hoover's fallen, shirtless form and weeps. "Love is the greatest force on earth," Hoover once said. "Far more enduring than hatred."
Hoover's boss, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, is said to be a Quaker. Hoover's mother tells young Edgar of a spiritualist's premonition that he would be a successful, famous man. A reporter calls a breaking story the biggest one "since the resurrection," maybe even bigger.
Hoover uses tapped phones and secret "bugs" to fight organized crime, and when those bugs happen to land upon unexpected sexual indiscretions, he uses his new knowledge to his advantage. For example, he reports a liaison Eleanor Roosevelt had with another woman and a sexual tryst President Kennedy had with the mob-connected Judith Exner. When Hoover listens (with quite a bit of personal intensity) to a taped affair between an unidentified man and woman, we see their sexual motions via shadows on a bedroom wall and hear their moans of passion.
After reminding her son of a cross-dressing school boy who killed himself after being publically humiliated, Mrs. Hoover announces, "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son." Then, when his mother passes, we see Hoover put on her necklace and one of her dresses, weeping in grief. And that sets us up for this: It's well-known that Hoover and Clyde Tolson shared a very close long-term relationship. And onscreen it's made very clear that Tolson is gay and very much wants a physical relationship with Edgar. But while Hoover's attachment to his friend is obvious, his (hinted at) sexual desire is (mostly) suppressed. Indeed, the FBI director proposes to Helen Gandy; she denies him and he never marries. And when Tolson tells Hoover how much he loves him, J. Edgar quickly begins talking of needing to find a "Mrs. Hoover." That tactic angers Tolson, and the two men fall into an argument that degrades into a wrestling fight: Tolson eventually pins Hoover and kisses him—long and hard on the lips. A bloodied Hoover then quietly says, "Don't you ever do that again." But after Tolson stalks out of the room, we hear Edgar mouth the words, "I love you, Clyde. I love you." In another scene we see Edgar hold Clyde's hand while they're riding in a car. He tells his mother, "I don't like to dance with women."
A Bolshevik activist plants a bomb at the attorney general's home, blowing out the front half of the house. (The family escapes harm.) Hoover's agents raid a Communist enclave, and we see two agents viciously kicking a prone form before Hoover stops them. We're shown quick shots of men shooting tommy guns. Old photos of dead mobsters and police agents show faces with bullet wounds. Long after the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping, a man finds the decomposing and charred corpse of the child by the roadside.
When Hoover and Tolson's argument breaks into a fight, they thrash around a sitting room battering each other. Tolson punches the smaller man in the face, giving Hoover a bloody lip. Tolson throws and breaks two glasses.
Crude or Profane Language
The majority of the movie stays completely free of foul language. Its infrequent interjections, however, are particularly harsh. In the middle we hear one use of "c‑‑ks‑‑‑‑‑." And near the end the reputedly profane President Nixon hurls out an f-word, an abuse of Jesus' name and a second "c‑‑ks‑‑‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Lots of folks (including Hoover and Tolson) drink champagne and hard liquor. They smoke cigarettes in several restaurant/club scenes. Mrs. Hoover urges her son to smoke more often to calm his nerves.
An elderly Hoover goes to the doctor with feelings of anxiety and fatigue; the doctor begins giving him regular "diet meds" that are made up of "vitamins and a little extra pick-me-up." We later see Hoover suffering what appear to be withdrawal symptoms when he goes too long between shots.
Other Negative Elements
As I mentioned, Hoover comes across as a dedicated law-and-order kind of guy. But he's only a stickler when it comes to other people's actions. And he sometimes goes way too far in his efforts to protect his agency: He blackmails officials and even perjures himself before Congress. He disregards Constitutional civil rights—illegally tapping phones and taking someone's personal mail—in pursuit of remedies to the threats of Communism and organized crime. He states that President Nixon wanted several reporters' phones illegally tapped.
Near the end of his life, Hoover writes a racist and vitriol-laden letter to Martin Luther King Jr. in an attempt to blackmail the civil rights leader into refusing the Nobel Peace Prize. He calls Attorney General Robert Kennedy a "nitwit Kennedy child." He refers to Eleanor Roosevelt as "Mrs. Horseface."
In 1993, the sleazy tell-all Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover grabbed the public's attention with "facts" about the former FBI chieftain. Published some 20 years after the much-feared public figure's death, the most tawdry bits of the exposé—as told by an informant who claimed to have inside knowledge—presented tales of Hoover publicly cross-dressing and participating in torrid backroom encounters. Though criticized and never corroborated, that defiled version of J. Edgar stuck with the public, and is what some will likely come to the theater looking for.
And director Clint Eastwood does tackle some of those ideas as he tacks back and forth through his subject's life. He shows Hoover listening, transfixed, to a couple having sex as if he were watching pornography. He hints at Hoover's homosexuality, and more than hints at Tolson's. He wedges the subject of cross-dressing into a scene of mourning. But, ultimately, Hoover's relationship with Tolson remains chaste onscreen.
"Obviously there's a love story here," Eastwood told The New York Times. "Whether it is a gay love story or something else—well, the audience can interpret it. My intention was to show two men who really love each other, and beyond that it's none of my business."
Instead, Eastwood's film takes much more care to deliver a measured and almost amoral character study of a very complicated man. His is a J. Edgar who doggedly pursues corruption and gives shape to modern forensics. Yet at the same time he's a lonely, self-conscious man dominated by a possessive mother. He's prideful, an iconic spotlight-stealer and a blackmailing villain. He's simultaneously an unwavering patriot and a paranoiac racist. He's brave in the face of political pressure and a coward when confronted with physical danger.
Leonardo DiCaprio does an excellent job of giving flesh to Hoover's strengths and his frailties. And with Eastwood's seasoned touch they make this tangled and sometimes unsightly tale compelling if not exactly morally inspiring.