Typically I say that any movie with Leonardo DiCaprio in it is going to be a good movie. It’s evident that Leo takes the time to choose his projects and he picks ones with substance. He clearly manages his money well and isn’t a glutton for exposure, so I don’t expect we’ll see him as a mall cop or a clueless romcom dad anytime soon. So, I was quite surprised when I watched J. Edgar (2011). With Leo as the lead and Clint Eastwood as the director, this was a lock, no? Sadly, no.
Where this biopic falters is in placing far too much emphasis on speculations of J. Edgar Hoover’s life. Sure, we get the story of how the FBI came to be – how an attempted assassination led Hoover to realize the necessity of criminal science and how he started collecting a list of suspected radicals. We see him set a precedent for deportation based on radical conspiracy when he confronts naturalized citizen Emma Goldman. We learn about his involvement in the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son and see how this case brought about handwriting analysis and how he argued to make transporting abductees across states lines a federal crime. We also find out that he was responsible for the Library of Congress catalog system. But what seems to be most important to the storyteller here is the idea that Hoover might have been gay.
Early in the movie Hoover proposes marriage to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), a secretary at the Justice Department. She declines his offer, but becomes his lifelong personal secretary. At a later date, Hoover makes the acquaintance of Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a man who causes him to perspire and who, despite insisting that his employ is temporary, becomes Hoover’s constant companion and confidant. The movie makes it clear, through action and through confession from Hoover himself, that the relationship between the two men extended beyond their duties at the Bureau.
The thing is, though…we don’t know if that’s true. As the movie displays in its conclusion following his death, Gandy burned Hoover’s personal files at his behest. It may very well be true and, if it were, it would be interesting to learn how Hoover coped with his sexuality – including the suggested cross-dressing – in a time when being openly gay was, to put it mildly, frowned upon. But, because we don’t know, we can only guess at what his secretive romantic life might have been like. In doing so to such a great degree throughout the movie, we focus way too much on our own imaginings of his life and too little on what is known to be true. We take a modern-day narrative and impose it on a life so that it tells a story that we wish to tell. The implications are not revelatory or surprising simply because that’s all they are – implications. J. Edgar Hoover certainly lived a life worthy of telling, with lasting impacts on society today – it’s disappointing that the writers felt questioning his sexuality was the most interesting part of it.