3 Stars – Disturbing
The multilayered depiction of J. Edgar Hoover by director Clint Eastwood is invaluable. To understand how one man could create such a powerful institution as the FBI while often illegally intruding into the lives of over two hundred thousand Americans requires more than a superficial explanation. Such a man must have had a singular compulsion that began in childhood and remained strong even in the face of conflicting needs and threats over decades of life in a changing political landscape.
Based on the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), the complex humanity of Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is shown by interlacing his final days in power with his early years and focusing not only on his obsession to stop communists and radicals, but also on his own impoverished personal relationships.
The most important of those relationships was with his mother Annie (Judi Densch). His father was mentally ill and died while Hoover was a young man, but his mother was a powerful woman who focused her aspirations on her young son. Annie was both the reason for Hoover’s success and for his dysfunction. Making it clear that she would rather her son be dead than gay, the implication of the film is that the very person who made him who he became denied his sexuality. Although historians note that there is no evidence that Hoover was gay and that he had several romantic relationships with women, it is clear that Hoover’s interpersonal life was unhappy.
This dysfunction is seen most clearly in his relationship with the two primary supporters of his professional life and his only friends, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). When Hoover proposed to Gandy after only a few dates, she explained that she was married to her work. He then hired her as his personal secretary, a position she loyally held throughout their five decades of professional life, even serving him in his death by destroying his personal files as he had requested.
It is Hoover’s relationship with Tolson that is most often referenced when claiming he was gay. Having both graduated from the same law school, Hoover hires Tolson as his second in command and they are fused from that moment on and eat lunch and dinner together every day. Although the two bachelors may or may not have had a sexual relationship, they definitely had a relationship that was far beyond friendship, as seen by Hoover’s bequeath of his entire estate to Tolson. It was the support of both Gandy and Tolson that allowed Hoover the insulated power he craved and demanded.
In addition to these relational dysfunctions, the film clearly presents the brilliant though dictatorial way in which Hoover created a modern law-enforcement agency that brought federal power and scientific evidence into this young field of criminal justice. Although he abused his power and attacked such notable social reformers as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there is no doubt that he was able to bring justice against both insurgents and organized crime.
Though he was a deacon of his Presbyterian church, the film does not present Hoover as a religious person, and perhaps his Christian faith did not affect his morality and shape his integrity as would be expected, but this may be more a reflection of the writing and directing of the film than an accurate insight into his life.
A sad and troubled man whose brilliance and determination created one of the most powerful institutions in the world, J. Edgar Hoover is better understood by the presentation Clintwood makes in this film, though it is a disturbing life he uncovers.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. When Hoover’s ambition is reinforced by his mother, it becomes unhealthy. Do you think the actions he took based on this unhealthy obsession made our nation a safer place? Why do you answer as you do?
2. The fused relationship of Hoover with Tolson is presented in the film as being non-sexual but exclusive. This exclusive relationship is seen when Tolson goes ballistic when Hoover considers marrying the beautiful Dorothy Lamour, and so Hoover chooses to honor his relationship with Tolson rather than pursue Lamour. Why do you think Hoover made that choice?
3. The secret files that Hoover is said to have had on famous politicians were never found. The assumption is that Gandy destroyed them. Do you believe they never existed or that she destroyed them? Why?