J. Edgar Hoover is one of those names so ingrained in DC culture that you forget there was once a man behind the myth. It’s like when I learned that Dulles was a person before Dulles was an airport. There’s an uncomfortable flash, then a shock of recognition, then confusion. Sort of like when the Chipotle server gives you the wrong kind of beans.
Anyway, I knew very little about Hoover before this film. First director of the FBI and namesake of its headquarters, sure. That’s enough to get you to the $600 clue in Jeopardy. I’d also heard that he was a bit paranoid and possibly gay. But that’s about it.
The movie does quite a bit of flashing back and forward. It tries to be a frame tale, with Old Hoover (DiCaprio in some pretty bad prosthetics) narrating his memoirs to a series of young agents. (With typewriters; how quaint!) The film flashes back to notable events in Hoover’s life. How he got started with the Bureau after nobly fighting Communism on our shores. How he shaped the Bureau to his exacting standards with regards to everything from agents’ appearance to the use of fingerprints and criminological techniques. How he single-handedly brought down some of the day’s most notorious criminals.
Or did he?
See, that’s the thing. The whole thing is obviously told from Hoover’s point of view. In which he was nothing short of the hero during each and every arrest. Towards the very end of the film, Hoover’s confidante, Clyde Tolson, challenges many of Hoover’s assertions. He claims that the flashbacks as portrayed in the movie were mostly Hoover’s aspirational imagination.
Well, crap. Glad I just spent two hours watching them, then.
Also, we get a healthy dose of dysfunction in Hoover’s relationships with his mother and with Tolson. I get that those things were major factors in his life. I guess that I was just looking for a little more “Let’s kick some criminal butt!” and a little less “Let’s wear mother’s pearls!” I’m generally way more interested in someone’s work life than home life. (SO PLEASE DON’T TELL ME ABOUT YOUR KIDS.)
(Arnie Hammer as Tolson, though? Fantastic. For one, the old-age prosthetics were so much better. For two, Winklevii in the house!)
Another thing I noticed about this movie was that it was dark. I don’t mean thematically; I mean visually. Most of the scenes seemed to be set either at night or in darkened rooms. Whether this was a stylistic choice on the part of director Clint Eastwood or a condition of the TV on which I watched the film, I cannot say. Let’s pretend it’s the latter, because I see no good reason for 2+ hours of blackness.
I give this film a wistful thumbs down. I so wanted it to be good. FBI insider with a dose of Hoover-at-home. But perhaps I should’ve known from the title that this was a film about the man, and not the myth or the legend.