Like many in the audience going to see “J. Edgar,” the new biopic film about John Edgar Hoover, I am too young to have known the iconic lawman before his death in 1972.
But unlike many going to see this film, I’ve studied enough history to know when I’m getting conned.
As the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a position he held for over 40 years, Hoover’s life may have been more filled with intrigue, excitement and insider machinations than any American’s in the 20th century.
For example, Hoover was at the heart of the gangster wars of the 1930s, leading his G-Men in open warfare against such notorious figures as John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly.
But that’s not what “J. Edgar” focuses on. Dillinger is a mere cameo in the movie and Kelly a sidebar to the real story of the film.
The real Hoover built the FBI into an efficient crime-fighting machine, credited with creating the national fingerprint database and forensic sciences, the staple thrillers of today’s most popular television shows. And while “J. Edgar” does dramatize these innovations, that’s not the heart of this story either.
The real Hoover rose to national prominence on the tails of one of America’s most captivating and mysterious crimes: the kidnapping of Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr.
Yet while “J. Edgar” makes the Lindbergh baby case its primary backdrop, it’s still not the main thrust of what the movie has to say.
Despite the wealth of material from which to draw a movie about Hoover, the makers of “J. Edgar” decided to make a film all about … homosexuality.
As a film, “J. Edgar” is engaging, largely because of fantastic performances, especially from Naomi Watts and Leonardo DiCaprio, who makes a strong run at his fourth Academy Award nomination in the title role.
And while its time-skipping jaunt through Hoover’s life is at times confusing and saps the film’s momentum, there’s no denying “J. Edgar” is a well-made movie.
But audiences looking for a dramatized, riveting history of the FBI … will be sorely disappointed by “J. Edgar.”
Audiences hoping to see an intrigue-laced film about a man busting the bad guys, maneuvering through Washington, D.C.’s shark-infested waters and battling organized crime … will likewise wonder why they bought a ticket.
For the primary thing Hoover battles in “J. Edgar” is not crime, but repressed sexuality.
The film portrays Hoover as a man painfully awkward around women, desperately seeking male affirmation and drawn to his lifelong companion, Clyde Tolson.
In real life, Hoover and Tolson were uncommonly close, vacationed together, ate together and were even buried near one another after Tolson inherited Hoover’s estate. It’s fairly common for biographers to speculate they were more than just bosom buddies.
But “J. Edgar” not only speculates, it weaves its entire story around the evolution of Hoover’s sexuality from awkward young man to “gay” old man.
Hints get dropped throughout the movie, most notably in a scene where Hoover resolves not to dance with women, only to have his mother, a powerful apron-strings influence in his life, tell him, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil [meaning, effeminate or homosexual].”
The scene plays powerfully, as the narrative implies his mother’s one pronouncement shoves Hoover’s sexuality so far “into the closet” that it can never fully emerge.
The holding hands, the obvious longings of Tolson, Hoover’s donning of his mother’s clothes after her death, the fight after which Tolson kisses Hoover, and so forth, make the homosexual tones a prominent theme of the film.
But is it fair to say it’s the point of the movie?
Ultimately, a good story is about the characters, not just the plot or the scene or the setting. And “J. Edgar” is a good story, set against the lawman’s setting of crime and government and espionage. The evolution of Hoover’s character through the amazing historical circumstances, therefore, is the enduring essence of the film.
And how does Hoover’s character evolve?
By the end of the film, he can freely admit he “loves” Tolson, kisses him on the forehead and upon his death, leaves all he has to his male companion. The film then ends with Tolson reading a letter from Hoover’s secret files, taking comfort in the words of a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt’s “gay” lover.
In the end, the lasting impression audiences are left with is not the tremendous historical contribution of Hoover – for good or ill – or even his fierce dedication to justice and county, but the “beauty” of an enduring homosexual love affair, one filled with love and friendship, but without any of the actual sodomy that might, understandably, turn audiences off. Yes, isn’t “gay” love lovely and pure and noble and virtuous?
For everything “J. Edgar” could have been, it ended up merely another Hollywood fantasy dressed up in history’s clothes.
- “J. Edgar” contains roughly a half dozen profanities and obscenities.
- The film also contains several scenes of crime-related violence, including a bombing, a scene of police brutality, a sniper killing people from the rooftops, gunfire and so forth. In one scene, the badly decomposed body of Lindbergh’s baby is shown; in another, Hoover and Tolson fight and wrestle. In a pair of scenes shown in the film of an old James Cagney movie, a man repeatedly strikes a woman.
- The film contains no nudity, but does have some heavy sexual elements in it, including a scene where Hoover listens to a recording of a couple having sex, including rather explicit sounds and the shadows of their bodies against the wall. Discussions of affairs, some heavy flirting and discussion of homosexuality are present. Throughout the film, Tolson’s attraction to Hoover is obvious, culminating in a man-on-man kiss.
- The film’s only religious or occult references are vague, including a mention of “faith,” a line about “sinners” and a mention of “love” as the “greatest force on earth.” All mentions are brief and theologically unspecific.