‘J. Edgar’ an interesting look behind the scenes of history

Jessica Cabe

Clint Eastwood’s latest endeavor is a biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the F.B.I. who served in the Justice Department for almost 50 years under eight presidents.

The film begins in 1919 with a 24-year-old Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) serving under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) in the Justice Department. When anarchists bomb Palmer’s house, Hoover is disgusted by the sloppy police work and lack of evidence gathering. Here, the seed is planted for forensics in a federal investigation agency.

The film continues to tell the story of Hoover’s rise to the top of the F.B.I. with the help of his smart and faithful secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

On the surface, Hoover appears to be a strong, intelligent man, well-fitted to a position of power. But Eastwood’s film takes the audience behind the scenes to a more personal side of the political giant.

Hoover’s relationship with his mother, Annie Hoover (Judi Dench), is both touching and disturbing. He admires her opinion so much he confides in her regarding almost all of the elements of his career. Her advice is his rock, and their relationship is what holds this rather fussy man together. Hoover never marries and lives with his mother until she dies. He is the stereotypical “mama’s boy,” but only because of a secret he can scarcely admit to himself: He is gay.

He tries for the better part of the film to develop a relationship with a woman, but only because he feels that is what he is supposed to do. Upon meeting Helen Gandy, he expresses romantic feelings. She insists that her career will always come first, and she has no interest in marrying. They agree to remain in business together as a team until the end of their careers, but nothing romantic develops.

Hoover’s true love interest lies in Tolson, the cool, calm and collected associate director of the F.B.I. who serves as the perfect balance to Hoover’s borderline neurotic personality. The fashion-forward Tolson is also interested in men, but Hoover’s reputation as a strong leader is on the line. The nation is plagued with intolerance, and Hoover is not willing to go public with his affections. This creates tension between the two men, which is ultimately resolved by the end of the film.

Stylistically, the film is flawless. Cinematographer Tom Stern worked with Eastwood on a number of movies (including Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and Changeling), and his striking technique brings insight into the characters. Most of the film shows the main characters half in the shadows, indicating a dichotomy between the surface of their characters and their hidden truths. A lack of music brings an element of reality to the film, reminding the audience that this is not just another Hollywood movie; this movie has important secrets to reveal.

History buffs will certainly appreciate the film for its political plot lines, which alternate between Hoover’s last days in the early 1970s and his career from its beginnings through the arrest and conviction of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for kidnapping Charles Lindbergh Jr.

But this movie is not just about the rise and fall of an influential and game-changing man in history. It is about the man behind the scenes, and this personal insight is where the film truly flourishes.