By John Mulderig
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Over a career that began during World War I and endured almost until the era of Watergate, famed founding director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) battled communists, gangsters, Nazi spies, the Kennedys, the civil rights movement and (albeit reluctantly) the Mafia.
That’s a lot of time and a lot of conflict for one movie, which is perhaps why "J. Edgar" (Warner Bros.) — Clint Eastwood’s biographical drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the G-man many love to hate — registers, ultimately, as polished but taxing. All the more so since an attempt to reconstruct Hoover’s enigmatic personal life, a subject of much gossip then and considerable controversy now, is thrown into the mix as well.
As scripted by Dustin Lance Black, the film informatively chronicles Hoover’s rise from obscure bureaucrat to power-besotted keeper of the nation’s secrets.
Yet its exploration of the three main relationships in Hoover’s life — with his domineering mother, Annie (Judi Dench), his girlfriend-turned-secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and his No. 2 at the bureau, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) — feels sensationalized at times. A case in point: a fistfight between Hoover and Tolson that consummates in a kiss.
Let it be noted, however that said stolen smooch — more or less exacted by Tolson from a surprised, if not necessarily unwilling, Hoover — is the furthest extent of physical intimacy between the two men portrayed on screen.
There’s certainly a lot of pent-up tension between them; the dust-up, for instance, results from Tolson’s jealous rage over Hoover’s romance with Hollywood glamour girl Hedy Lamarr. And there’s also the occasional, ambiguous pat on the hand. But whether their well-documented daily companionship over several decades extended into the bedroom is left up to viewers to decide.
Given that Black also penned 2008’s "Milk," it may not be unfair to ask whether this aspect of a historical figure’s life is being exploited to advance a contemporary political agenda. Hoover’s self-justifying rhetoric in defense of his crime-fighting methods, for instance, does invite reflection on the current debate about the balance between national security and individual liberty. But the idea that his (apparently) conflicted sexuality can serve as a weapon in today’s culture wars seems strained.
As depicted here, Hoover is too idiosyncratic, and decidedly too unsympathetic, to be co-opted as an icon of gay victimization — authentic or otherwise.
Steely mom Annie voices a horrifying preference for a dead son over one exposed as a homosexual, and Tolson frequently plays the role of Hoover’s conscience on issues of FBI policy. Yet there’s no suggestion that if Annie — and society at large — would just have lightened up, Tolson and Hoover could somehow have walked hand in hand into a lavender sunset and found peace together.
Questions of advocacy aside, "J. Edgar" includes material calculated to make it uncomfortable viewing even for mature audience members. The gothic nature of Hoover’s filial situation, for instance, reaches a climax in a scene, set after Annie’s death, that — mildly at least — evokes Anthony Perkins’ interaction with his memorable screen mom in that Victorian fixer-upper above the Bates Motel.
The film contains brief intense but bloodless violence, a scene of semi-graphic adultery, homosexual and transvestite themes, a same-sex kiss, at least one use of profanity and a couple of rough terms. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.