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“Secret Agent Man”

Review: “J. Edgar”

Grade: B+ (RENT IT)

“WHAT DETERMINES a man’s legacy is what isn’t seen.”  This from J. Edgar Hoover, studiously embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio, in Clint Eastwood’s new bio-pic, “J. Edgar,” a tragedy in which quite a lot of Hoover’s secrets are begrudgingly brought to light.  The secret files shredded by his lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (played by Naomi Watts) at the film’s conclusion serve as a potent symbol for Eastwood’s study more generally: the files may be history, but our fearful fascination with Hoover remains just as potent as it was back in 1963 when the head of the F.B.I. was busy wire-tapping Martin Luther King, Jr. and deriding Eleanor Roosevelt as “old horse face” and lesbian.

With “Milk,” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black turned to gay-lib crusader Harvey Milk for an open book of love, laughter and liberation.  Turning to a droll anti-radical like John Edgar Hoover, the very antithesis of Milk, was a bold way to balance two extremes in twentieth-century American culture.  Hoover’s public achievements, of course, are extremely well-known.  Appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation (later the F.B.I.) in 1924, Hoover served eight presidents before his death in 1972.  Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” gives us the sense that, at the zenith of his Orwellian power, it was really Hoover’s Washington while everyone else, including the Kennedy brothers, were merely his special guests.  Jeffrey Donovan, as Robert F. Kennedy, has to remind Hoover that communism is no longer an internal but external threat to effectively beat back the bulldog.

Spanning that long career, from a librarian to a crime-fighter, “J. Edgar” begins with a bang, literally, as the Washington home of A. Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) is bombed by anarchists in 1919.  Determined to destroy the source of the attack, Palmer soon recruited a 24-year-old law school graduate named John Edgar Hoover to arrest and deport those suspected of anti-American activities.  But Hoover was no Joe McCarthy, a scourge dismissed by Hoover as an “opportunist.”

As the new acting director, Hoover fought the cancer of communism on American soil with the same ferocity he fought facial hair and bowties amongst his employees.  Hoover’s involvement in the so-called “Crime of the Century” – the fatal abduction of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, Charles Jr., from the second story nursery of the aviator’s New Jersey home in 1932 – brought instant notoriety.  So, too, did Hoover’s pursuit of gangsters Machine Gun Kelly and Vi Mathias.  It was the age of the Tommy Gun and James Cagney and Hoover saw himself as the tireless watchman at the center of it all. And centralize he did: Hoover’s innovations included a fingerprint database and state-of-the-art forensics.  Bryan Burrough, author of Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, observes that “in late 1933, the FBI was still only a shadow of the professional crime-fighting organization it was to become” since “Hoover’s College Boys were long on energy but short on experience.”

Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” also turns to Hoover’s lack of experience when it came to the opposite sex and draws a rather reductive line between Hoover’s alleged homosexuality and his closeness to his mother Anna Marie (a puppet-master in petticoats played by Dame Judi Dench).  She lurks about the house they share, asking “Are you abandoning me again tonight?” on hearing her little Edgar has plans.  One harrowing scene features a forlorn DiCaprio standing before the mirror, mother over his shoulder, telling her through euphemism: “I don’t like to dance with women.”  It’s staggering to think that DiCaprio, who could have easily passed as one of the Fanning sisters in his “Romeo and Juliet” days now looks like a young Orson Wells.  What follows DiCaprio’s pained admission is Dench’s narrative about the suicide of a gay man she called “daffy” (for daffodil), adding: “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffy son.”  DiCaprio and Dench’s scenes together elevate the psychology of “J. Edgar” to something like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Volumnia, another oedipal duo in which a boy’s best friend, as Norman Bates put it, is his mother.  Cinematographer Tom Stern keeps the film half-lit to match an ambience of secrets and lies.

But the ambitious young man nicknamed “Speed” gets all tongue-tied upon meeting the handsome Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer, the “Winklevi” twins in “The Social Network”).  Hoover and Tolson become fast friends and they remained so until the Director’s death, after which Tolson accepted the U.S. flag draped on his friend’s coffin and inherited Hoover’s half-a-million dollar estate.  Still, Black’s script is a work of historical revisionism, just as dependent on rumors and suspicions as Hoover’s own secret files.  No one knows for sure what Hoover and Tolson shared, but Black’s script, taking a cue from Tony Kushner’s treatment of Roy Cohn in “Angels in America,” casts the repression of Hoover’s own sexuality as the engine that drives his ruthless oppression of others.  It’s a bit simple but it forms the humanizing core of “J. Edgar,” a gay film from an unlikely source: cowboy auteur Clint Eastwood.

Eleven years before his death in 1975, Tolson suffered a stroke. Like an old married couple at the breakfast table, Hoover, every bit the control-freak, orders that Clyde better enunciate his words.  Tolson was later buried in the Congressional Cemetery only yards away from J. Edgar where perhaps the all-seeing Director could eternally keep an eye on him.  As Hoover’s secretary put it before every appointment, “The director will see you now.”