Home > Popular Culture > Movie Review: J. Edgar

Movie Review: J. Edgar

My wife surprised me the other day by taking me to go see the new Leonardo DiCaprio movie “J. Edgar” (based on the life of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover).  I’m a bit of a historical movie buff so seeing a film about the life of the person considering by many at one time to be the most powerful man in the country was right up my alley.

Hoover and his stockpile of secret files on world leaders, celebrities and generally anybody he felt holding dirt on has long fascinated me.  Hoover in general has always interested me and I was anxious to see how his life story would translate to the big screen.

I was also interested in how certain things would be portrayed in the movie.  Hoover was rumored to be homosexual and a cross dresser and the speculation was that he carried on a lifelong romantic relationship with his #2 man Clyde Tolson.  Clint Eastwood, who directed the film, stated in an interview that the film “doesn’t really go there”.  I wanted to see if it did or didn’t.

(DISCLAIMER:  From this point forward, I may talk about plot points in the movie.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, turn away now.)

I have to say that overall I was slightly disappointed in the movie.  Only slightly though.  It’s a good movie no doubt but by the end of it I was questioning how accurate of a portrayal I was seeing.

For example, this movie was not meant to be a lifetime achievement award for Hoover.  He is portrayed as paranoid, bitter, sometimes delusional and always power-hungry.  Hoover no doubt accomplished some great things during his career (most notably being the mind behind the national fingerprint database) but that is largely overshadowed by his failure to connect emotionally with anyone outside of Tolson and his mother.

And speaking of Tolson, how did the “possibly gay” storyline play out?  If Clint Eastwood says the movie “didn’t quite go there” in saying that Hoover was a homosexual, I think it entirely went there.  I’m not sure how someone could watch this movie and not come away from it thinking anything other than Hoover and Tolson were a romantic couple.  Granted, much of the innuendo is suggested and not explicit.  There is a brief kiss but the rest of the gestures – hand holding in the car, saying “I love you” – make you wonder if it’s romantic or simply an expression of appreciation and gratitude for the other.

The cross dressing rumor is similarly vague.  There is a scene following the death of Hoover’s mother where he puts on his mother’s dress and necklace but it’s open to interpretation whether his motivation for doing so is a desire to wear women’s clothes or is simply an attempt to reconnect with his now deceased mother.

On the personal side, Hoover has few allies.  His mother, Tolson and his secretary Helen Gandy (played by Naomi Watts) are the only people he can truly count on.  His life and career are spent carefully crafting an image of himself and the agency he came to build.  The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby – a case which plays a large role in the movie – conveys that in some cases Hoover is less interested in finding true justice than in selling himself and the FBI as law-enforcement experts that will always bring wrongdoers to justice.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives his usual strong performance as Hoover channeling some of the same qualities he did in portraying Howard Hughes in The Aviator.  Naomi Watts was particularly convincing as Gandy I though and I enjoyed Armie Hammer (previously best known playing both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) and his turn as Clyde Tolson.

The narrative can be a little confusing flashing back and forth between present day and the past a little too rapidly at times.  The makeup used to age DiCaprio, Watts and Hammer was hit or miss.  DiCaprio and Watts were believable but Hammer looked like a character out of Star Trek.

Overall, I’d give the film something like a 2 1/2 or 3 out of 4 stars rating.  It was well worth the time to see it and it is a good movie but not something I’m sure I’d make an effort to see again.

What say you?  Have you are were you planning on seeing J. Edgar?  What did you think of it?  Feel free to comment below.

  1. December 2, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    I read until the part you warned me not to read further. 😀 And I like what I have read so far, will come back and finish the rest once I see the movie. 🙂


    • December 2, 2011 at 2:15 pm

      Awesome! It’s a good movie. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  2. December 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I’m trying to get my father-in-law to this one; it looks pretty cool! Thanks for the review.

    • December 3, 2011 at 9:19 pm

      I enjoyed it. I think you will too.

  3. unclerave
    December 2, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    I actually saw it the day it came out. For the most part I agree with your assessment of it, but I’d give it from a solid 3, to as much as a 3.5! You’re right about the makeup, but I thought they did a bang up job on El Primo DiCaprio. Watts’ was better than Hammer’s, but i really didn’t buy her as an old lady. All in all, I think they did an admirable job on the makeup. The bigger issue for me was that it dragged in a few places. I think a lot of younger viewers – especially ones who aren’t history buffs – would lose interest in the slower parts. I thought Eastwood did a pretty good job of not getting too into his sexuality. He left it up to the viewers’ interpretation. I viewed it as J. Edgar was a closeted Gay man, in total denial. I think he truly loved Tolson, but didn’t allow himself to cross that line that would have raised his mother from the dead. My confusion goes a little more towards Gandy. Was he initially attracted to her because she admired him . . . and she was young and attractive and intelligent, and it was more or less the expected thing for him to TRY to do??? For me, theirs was the truer friendship, while Hoover’s and Tolson’s seemed more driven by an unrequited desire. I think Tolson was clearly more open, but begrudgingly accepted that J Edgar couldn’t make the leap, and just made the best of it he could. Which was just to be as close to J Edgar as humanly possible, without being physical lovers. For the cross-dressing scene i opt for motive #2. He was a major mama’s boy, and she had a sick kind of grip on him.

    J Edgar may have been the original metro-sexual!

    Funny thing is . . . I see movies in the theater once in a blue moon. Before this, I think the last movie I saw in the theater was “Secretariat”! I’m a sucker for horse movies!

    • December 3, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      Yep, I think you’re pretty right on with most points.

      P.S. I loved Seabiscuit. My all time favorite horse movie.

  4. lovethewayyoulied
    December 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    I’m in agreement and feel like you review is pretty spot on. I have to say though, I am not a big fan of what I call “flashback” movies. The last DiCaprio movie (Inception?) was like the worst flashback movie ever.
    In all, I’d have to say (as a bit of a history buff) that the movie played fairly accurate in the accounts I’ve read. I think it all comes down to interpretation: Did you come away thinking “wow, that guy was a mental case and a harda$$” or was it more like “hmmm J Edgar was a misunderstood genius who accomplished a lot and had a hard time connecting with people once he hit the top”? I choose the latter and give the guy props for accomplishing those things while struggling, virtually alone, with his alternative lifestyle.
    Nice review my fellow ranter. Now the truly burning question I have to ask is Team Edward or Team Jacob? Hahaha

  5. December 3, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    You hated Inception? I loved it. And I haven’t watched a minute of Twilight so I belong to neither team (although I never understood the appeal of Robert Pattinson).

  6. December 4, 2011 at 1:00 am

    Haven’t seen the movie yet. What impressed me about him was how the bureau was created and how he went after the scariest vermin during his time, i.e. the mob. It’s hard to create every nuance in the movie, everyone has an angle or a different take, based on their knowledge of the man. Keep up the good work.

    • December 8, 2011 at 2:39 pm

      Thanks! I agree it’s difficult to create a perfect all-encompassing biography. This is just the movie critic in me speaking out I guess! He did accomplish quite a lot during his career and that was fun to see on the screen.

  7. December 4, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    I’ve been meaning to watch and I can’t wait for this movie to hit the Philippine theaters. Glad I read this post.

    • December 5, 2011 at 4:23 pm

      Awesome! Hope you enjoy it and it gets there soon!

  8. December 4, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Great review. I will watch it if it shows on TV, especially since there is more portrayed about him than just the FBI stuff. I feel the same about such movies – how much of it is accurate? But on second thought, how much of history and biographies are accurate. 🙂

    • December 8, 2011 at 2:40 pm

      Very true. It’s all perception and interpretation. Definitely a worthwhile view!

  9. December 5, 2011 at 7:34 am

    Sounds like a great flick. Thanks so much for finding my blog; I love to “follow back” and find new ones to read. I like what I read right away: “ranting” and ‘liberal”!

    • December 5, 2011 at 4:18 pm

      I’m always glad to welcome another ranter, another liberal or (better yet) another ranting liberal! Thanks again for stopping by!

  10. December 5, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Good review. There are problems with the story mainly because it feels like we are just going through all of these events that happened in Hoover’s life, without any real connection or anything. However, DiCaprio’s performance is great and Eastwood really does know how to direct any type of film and at least bring out some rich drama with its story even if it may be a bit muddled.

    • December 5, 2011 at 4:17 pm

      I agree. It bordered on biography at times and ended up getting a little tiring at the end but I thought it was worth the money. After Gran Torino, I’m convinced that I’ll watch just about anything that Clint Eastwood makes.

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