I watched a new rental a couple of nights ago; Clint Eastwood‘s ‘J Edgar’. Leo DiCaprio stars as J Edgar Hoover, the famous (infamous?) Director of the FBI from 1935 to 1972, serving under 8 different Presidents and one of the most significant historical and political figures in the United States of the 20th Century.
Being a generally well read man; going into the film I knew some broad strokes about J Edgar Hoover. I knew about the cross dressing rumours, the Machiavellian political subterfuge & manoeuvrings, his fear of subversives (I’m a big John Lennon fan nd had read about Hoover’s surveillance and attempted deportation of him), and I was aware of key historical events/periods that the film references – such as the Lindbergh baby, Depression era gangsters, prohibition mobsters and the War on Communism. As a result I had good context and some expectations as to what the film may involve.
Honestly; I’m not sure what to make of it now I’ve seen it. I can’t really decide if I liked it or not – usually, after a few days of seeing something, I’ve got a pretty clear idea where I stand on a movie, but even a couple of day’s reflection hasn’t made things any clearer.
It was certainly watchable. I didn’t find myself checking the timer on my DVD player wondering how long was left to go from boredom. It’s well made too – the period elements are perfect and the setting of early 20th Century USA are well established down to fine details and the atmosphere and attitudes of that time are well communicated. It feels accurate in that sense – the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the colloquialisms they use and the attitudes they adopt. There were a few moments where I thought to myself “is that right?”, however, some of these historical liberties I question are actually well explained by the conclusion of the film in a satisfying manner.
The film seems to take a position on the rumours of Hoover’s sexuality, which is no surprise when you consider that the film is written by Dustin Lance Black, who is well known for his political views and gay rights activism. In fact there is a great deal of focus on this element of Hoover’s life through the relationship with Clyde Tolson, his assistant Director, which, although perhaps not physical, is quite clearly represented in the film as a personal and professional relationship with strong homoerotic undertones between the two men. One particularly interesting scene takes place between Hoover and his mother (“I don’t like to dance with girls Mother”), which is clearly Black’s attempt to show how little attitudes to gay rights has changed in some parts of US culture since the 30s, but also to tell us that this film’s Hoover was gay, just not openly or physically sexually active.
I think this is perhaps inherently why the film is hard to grasp; the focus on the closet homosexuality of Hoover and his relationship with Tolson begins to dominate the narrative at the sacrifice of other key elements to the man. Where the film succeeds is in Black’s presentation of his interpretation of the Hoover/Tolson relationship; it shows a significant man in US history as a closeted, supressed homosexual (not confirmed), in a sweet & caring relationship that is not sexual but one of companionship, support & partnership that is far from the deviant and unGodly perception of the time (and sadly still seen that way today in parts of America). Where it fails is in the messy and under-developed presentation of his significance to law enforcement (in PR, forensics and federal law reform) and his Machiavellian political talents; all of which is referenced and alluded to but, as the film goes on, given less and less focus until it disappears behind the plot strand with Tolson.
One could question whether the Tolson plot strand is bromance or romance (Discussing the film afterwards me and my wife both agreed it was romance and that the aforementioned scene with Hoover’s Mother was a clearly overt statement of homosexuality – albeit suppressed) but that doesn’t matter so much – what mattered to me was that it began to dominate the narrative and, by the end, I wasn’t really clear what the film was trying to say except for the homosexual context described above, which is a shame for a biopic about such an important man to US history that could have said so much more about modern America than confirming what we already know about Conservative middle America’s inability to move forward on LGBT equality issues. What’s a bigger shame is that it’s target audience, people like me, don’t really need enlightenment, already support equal rights, and wish to learn a little more about history from our biopics.
So, an OK watch, decently filmed and performed but with a messy narrative and thematically one note and misses many opportunities. Perhaps worth a viewing, but put it down your list and keep it for a rainy day.