Dark Horse


Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm. J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio).

“WHAT IS A GUY ON A WHITE HORSE DOING THERE?” I wondered as I watched Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. Horse and rider are glimpsed on an urban street crowded with early-1930s cars as the FBI is about to apprehend a notorious bank robber. Though J. Edgar Hoover, for fifty years America’s “Top Cop,” took hands-on credit for nabbing the most-wanted criminals of the Depression era, his self-aggrandizing claims were refuted by eyewitnesses, who described Hoover and his sidekick Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) waiting until FBI underlings subdued or killed their quarry, before coming on the scene with dramatically drawn guns.

Working from a complicated, emotionally resonant script by Dustin Lance Black, Eastwood has couched J. Edgar almost entirely in the first person, with Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a most unreliable narrator. Although Hoover’s version of the truth is occasionally contested in dialogue and, more subtly, in visual clues that might escape one’s notice on first viewing, it is not until we’ve nearly come to the end of this strange journey that Tolson, Hoover’s yes-man at work and his constant companion in private life, challenges the version of FBI history that Hoover has committed to print. Included in the short list of exaggerations and lies that Tolson sorrowfully enumerates is the fact that there was no white horse in the vicinity when Hoover made that fabled arrest. More than any other false claim that Hoover has made, it is the white horse which we suddenly realize was a fabrication of Hoover’s imagination—no matter how alive it appears on the screen—that undermines the reality, or rather the truth, of everything we’ve seen, as deliriously as does the final image of Naomi Watts in bed in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). Rather than the terse J. Edgar (which Hoover used as a personal signature), the film might have been more aptly titled “The Fever Dreams of J. Edgar Hoover.”

The movie takes some getting used to. It begins conventionally, with the elderly Hoover dictating the story of how he single-handedly transformed the FBI from an ineffectual government agency into the most powerful police force in the world and, in so doing, saved the US from subversives and terrorists within and without. Since Hoover’s paranoia did not distinguish between the Bolshevists of the ’20s and the civil rights activists of the ’60s, this official history of the FBI makes associative leaps back and forth through six decades. Complicating the narrative, the achronological history that Hoover dictates to his scribes opens onto subjective memories of both his private life and the material amassed in his infamous “secret files.” Hoover realized early in his career that knowledge is power; his initial desire to fingerprint every person in the US developed into massive surveillance via telephone taps and bugs of seven presidents, their families, and the people in their administrations. Anyone who held public office, anyone who was a celebrity of any kind, was fair game. Hoover used this “knowledge,” much of it secrets of the bedroom, as fodder for blackmail. It enabled him to keep his job through seven presidential administrations, and also to “persuade” whoever was running the Justice Department to authorize what should have been completely illegal surveillance.

Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm. Helen Gandy and J. Edgar Hoover (Naomi Watts and Leonardo DiCaprio).

J. Edgar hop, skips, and jumps through this history. It spends almost no time on Hoover’s relation to Joseph McCarthy or his role in the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations, but leaves no doubt about his hatred of Martin Luther King Jr. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is of the top cop, who in the last years of his life was mainlining as much amphetamine as any Warhol superstar, dictating a letter smearing King, miming the voice of an imaginary African American. (The smears had to come from the inside, Hoover opined.) While the film never claims that Hoover or the FBI were complicit in King’s assassination—or in those of JFK and RFK, whom Hoover loathed almost as much—his rage against all three men certainly provokes speculation.

The man who used sexual secrets as commodities had without a doubt something to hide from the world and probably from himself. J. Edgar plays like a combination of Citizen Kane, Psycho, and an amateur Tennessee Williams production in which the actors are playing characters twenty years older than themselves but nevertheless rise to confrontations of great emotional power. Everything in Eastwood’s visual concept for the film—in particular the gleaming, yet heavily shadowed, desaturated color cinematography, and the obvious layers of latex on DiCaprio’s and Hammer’s faces when their characters age—speaks to the secrets and perversions of the closet. Wildly ambitious for her son, Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench) instills in him a terror of becoming a “daffodil.” After she dies, Eastwood gives us a Psycho-like tour of her bedroom that climaxes with Hoover putting on her beads and her dress, and, while regarding his reflection in her dressing table mirror, mimicking her voice to warn himself against exactly the temptation to which he has yielded.

There are few films to which the much-overused slogan “The personal is political” is better applied. Or that give a more mind-boggling spin to the imperative to “print the legend.” As Hoover’s private memories snowball in the film’s second hour, J. Edgar becomes a love story, whose poignancy is all the more powerful because it does not excuse the evil Hoover did as director of the FBI. Eastwood is a superb director of actors, and DiCaprio has not given a performance this rich and riveting since he became an adult. Like the film itself, the actor seems slightly wooden until we understand it is the character and his vision of the world that is stiff and stultified, made grotesque through repression. When I left the theater heading for the subway, the people in the street looked as mad and desperate as the people on the screen. More important than any detailing of the “anti-American” deeds of the FBI that the movie might provide is the overwhelming sense with which it leaves us—that we are engulfed by paranoia and corruption from the top down. J. Edgar is one crazy, wise, late masterpiece.

Amy Taubin

J. Edgar opens in select theaters on Wednesday, November 9, and in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 11.