J. Edgar

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

The film opens with J. Edgar Hoover in his office during his later years. He asks that a writer, known as Agent Smith, be let in, so that he may tell the story of the origin of the FBI for the sake of the public. Hoover explains that the story begins in 1919, when A. Mitchell Palmer was Attorney General and Hoover’s boss at the Justice Department. Palmer suffers an assassination attempt, but is unharmed when the bomb explodes earlier than intended. Hoover recalls that the police handling of the crime scene was primitive, and that it was that night that he recognized the importance of criminal science. Later, Hoover visits his mother, Anna Marie, and tells her that Palmer has put him in charge of a new anti-radical division, and that he has already begun compiling a list of suspected radicals. He leaves to meet Helen Gandy, who has just started as a secretary at the Justice Department. Hoover takes Gandy to the Library of Congress, and shows her the card catalog system he devised. He muses about how easy it would be to solve crimes if every citizen were as easily identifiable as the books in the library. When Hoover attempts to kiss her, she recoils. Hoover gets down on his knees and asks her to marry him, citing her organization and education, but his request is once again denied. However, Gandy agrees to become his personal secretary.

Despite his close monitoring of suspected foreign radicals, Hoover finds that the Department of Labor refuses to deport anyone without clear evidence of a crime; however, Anthony Caminetti, the commissioner general of immigration dislikes the prominent anarchist Emma Goldman. Hoover arranges to discredit her marriage and make her eligible for deportation, setting a precedent of deportation for radical conspiracy. After several Justice Department raids of suspected radical groups, many leading to deportation, Palmer loses his job as Attorney General. Under a subsequent Attorney General, Harlan F. Stone, Hoover is made director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. He is introduced to Clyde Tolson, a recently graduated lawyer, and takes his business card. Later, while reviewing job applications with Helen Gandy, Hoover asks if Tolson had applied. Gandy says he had, and Hoover interviews and hires Tolson.

The Bureau pursues a string of gangster and bank robbery crimes across the Midwest, including the high profile John Dillinger, with general success. When the Lindbergh kidnapping captures national attention, President Hoover asks the Bureau to investigate. Hoover employs several novel techniques, including the monitoring of registration numbers on ransom bills, and expert analysis of the kidnapper’s handwriting. The birth of the FBI Crime Lab is seen as a product of Hoover’s determination to analyze the homemade wooden ladder left at the crime scene. When the monitored bills begin showing up in New York City, the investigators find a filling station attendant who wrote down the license plate number of the man who gave him the bill. This leads to the arrest, and eventual conviction, of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh child.

After going to a Shirley Temple film with Hoover’s mother, Hoover and Tolson decide to go out to a club. When Ginger Rogers asks Hoover if he ever wishes he had someone to keep him warm at night, he responds that he has dedicated his life to the bureau. Ginger’s mother asks Hoover to dance and he becomes agitated, saying that he and Tolson must leave, as they have a lot of work to do in the morning. When he gets home he shares his dislike of dancing with girls with his mother, and she tells him she would rather have a dead son than a “daffodil” for a son. She then insists on teaching him to dance, and they dance in her bedroom. Soon after, Hoover and Tolson go on a vacation to the horse races. That evening, Hoover tells Tolson that he cares deeply for him, and Tolson returns the feeling by stating that he loves Hoover. However, Hoover claims to be considering marriage to a young woman twenty years his junior, Dorothy Lamour, he has been seeing in New York City, provoking outrage from Tolson. Tolson accuses Hoover making a fool out of him and then begins throwing insults at Hoover, and consequently they begin throwing punches at each other and cause grave damage to the hotel room in the process; they eventually end up fighting on the floor. The fight ends when Tolson gets an upper hand over Hoover, and suddenly kisses him. Hoover demands that it must never happen again; Tolson says that it won’t, and attempts to leave. Hoover apologizes and begs him to stay, but Tolson only says that if Hoover ever mentioned another woman again, their friendship would be over. He then leaves, with Hoover professing love for him moments after.

Years later, Hoover feels his strength begin to decline. He requires daily visits by a doctor, and Tolson suffers a stroke which leaves him in a severely weakened state. An attempt by Hoover to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. into declining his Nobel Peace Prize proves ineffective, and King, Jr. accepts the prize. Hoover eventually begins to consider his mortality and tells Helen Gandy to destroy his secret files if he were to die to prevent Richard Nixon from possessing them. When Tolson appeals to Hoover to retire when Hoover comes to visit him, Hoover refuses, claiming that Nixon is going to destroy the bureau he has created. Tolson then accuses Hoover of exaggerating his involvement in many of the bureau’s actions.

Returning home one evening after work, Hoover, obviously weakened, goes upstairs. Shortly after, Tolson is called by Hoover’s housekeeper and he goes upstairs to find Hoover dead next to his bed. Griefstricken, he gently kisses Hoover’s forehead and covers his body with a sheet before walking out. The news of Hoover’s death reaches Nixon, and while he does a eulogy on television for him, several members of Nixon’s staff enter Hoover’s office and proceed to rifle through the cabinets and drawers in search of Hoover’s rumored “personal and confidential” files, but find them all to be empty. In the last scene, Helen Gandy is seen destroying stacks of files, assumed to be from Hoover’s personal archive.


I’m a regular watcher of the TV show Bones. In it, there are quite a few times when we see the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building. I don’t know about you, but anyone that gets a major building like that named after them has to be pretty important, right? This is what brings me to J. Edgar. After a couple of musicals, it can’t hurt to have a bit of a history lesson, right?

What is this about?

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in this riveting biopic as J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director as notorious for his overzealous methods of law enforcement as for the rumors regarding his cross-dressing and close relationship with protégé Clyde Tolson.

What did I like?

The man, the myth, the mystery. With any biopic, the main purpose should be to inform viewers who aren’t as familiar with the person(s) they are based on. In films such as Lincoln and, to a lesser extent, Pearl Harbor, this isn’t as necessary because the average viewer is (or at least should be) well-informed and educated on the subject. Now, if I were to ask you about J. Edgar Hoover, I bet you would hear crickets chirping instead of answers. After watching this film, you will at least have an idea oh who this man is and how important, albeit controversial, he was in American history.

DiCaprio. A few years ago, I heard Regis Philbin praise Leonardo DiCaprio, saying he was one of this generations greatest actors. I was looking at some of his body of work the other day and with the arguable exception of Romeo + Juliet, he hasn’t really had a bad performance, even if the movies haven’t been that great. Looking at pictures of J. Edgar Hoover, I’m not so sure I would have cast him in this role, at least not as the older version, but he does command the screen when he is there, so one cannot really complain.

Tone. There is a pretty dark tone to this picture. I’m not really talking about the subject matter, but rather the lighting. Somehow, though, it seems to work. Had this been all sunny days and brightly lit office buildings, I don’t believe the effect would have been the same. Kudos to director Clint Eastwood for the small little nuance that made more of a difference that one would realize.

What didn’t work?

Yawn. Perhaps is had something to do with my unfamiliarity with J. Edgar, but I was struggling to stay awake throughout this film. It literally starts with a bang, but that’s about as interesting as it gets. I’m not saying they should throw some random explosions in for no good reason, but they could have thrown the audience a bone in the way of some comic relief, a gunshot, or something. Anything that would have gotten a rise out of the crowd.

Make-up. I don’t usually pay attention to make-up, unless it is some hideous creature of sorts, but I can’t go on without mentioning the crappy job that was done to Armie Hammer. The make up on him was horrible! Normally, Hammer has Golden Age leading man looks, but with this make-up he looked more like some kind of ogre. I have to wonder is that what Clyde Tolson actually looked like and if not, what was their motivation for making his counterpart look this way. DiCaprio didn’t exactly have the best job, either, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad.

Rumors. J. Edgar Hoover has long been speculated to have been a bit paranoid that everyone was a communist, a point that this film spends quite some time on. He was also rumored to have been a bit of a cross-dresser and have romantic feelings for his friend Tolson. Both of these topics are glanced over. It is like reading a history book where you get chapters on chapters of info on WWII, and then there is a sentence that says “in the 60s, there was a war in Vietnam”. That is how I felt these topics were covered, but at the same time, since neither was confirmed and they were just rumors, it wouldn’t seem right to go any deeper, I suppose.

In the end, J. Edgar is one of those films that is targeted towards a specific audience. If you’re more a fan of artsy-fartsy biopics, then this is right up your alley. Unfortunately, most people are not into those types of flicks and, as such, will not really be interested in seeing this, unless they just want to watch a historical picture. Either way, I have to say that this is a pretty well-made film. Clint Eastwood has done a masterful job bringing the masses some insight into a mysterious figure who was quite influential, more so that we realize. It should also be noted that Eastwood also did the music for this film. If you get the chance, give this a shot. It isn’t the most exciting film around, but it is a worth watching.

4 out of 5 stars

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