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IN SHORT: just OK. [Rated R for brief strong language. 137 minutes]
Depending upon your date of birth, John Edgar Hoover may fulfill any of several great movie character templates. A Man of Great Power Driven by Inner Demons. A Boy who Loved his Mother and his Country, not necessarily in that order, and Served Them until the Day he/she/it Died. A 19th Century Man Determined to Beat Down the Rampaging Changes of the 20th Century. A Man Whose Private Life, for the most part, Stayed That Way. A Man So In The Closet Even He Didn't Know He Was In A Closet. Or he may have been a guy who got lucky and stayed on top by lying through his teeth about the dangers his country faced, year after year. And so on and so forth.
There is real meat to the story of J Edgar, which director Clint Eastwood chooses to tell by flashing back and forth in time to compare and contrast action and reaction in the man's life from boy to man to youth to Guardian of Democracy yadda yadda yadda . . . we apologize for sounding like a middle school book report. . . J Edgar is a film that, had Eastwood told the story start to finish chronologically, might have placed very high up on our very short list of films good enough to be the year's best. It may still make Top Ten; it is not a bad sit at all. But the mumbled audience comments at our screening were perfectly in synch with the crystal clear opinion floating around in my grey matter. Sometimes it's just best to tell the story.
To be fair, Dustin Lance Black wrote the script and, what with the Oscar for Milk in his pocket, may have figured that a population all grow'd up on Extra and Inside Edition and E.T. would be much more interested in the speculation that Hoover was gay or a transvestite or something way more perverse than the demanding and fussy Cop-in-Chief that was his projected image during my childhood in the 1960s. The film is almost obsessive about how the denial of Hoover's baser urges shaped a man or man-monster (again, depending on your generation). We don't particularly care.
But, as Hoover's mom Annie (Judi Dench) puts it, when her son refuses to dance with a girl because he can't dance -- "Better a dead son than a daffodil" (the slang "daffy" meant something different to 19th century people. In current lingo, "better dead than gay").
We're jumping around almost as badly as Eastwood's film does. So the root of the story, and you've had time to contemplate the list we offered, is the clash of cultures. J. Edgar Hoover, a boy raised by a perfectionist mother -- something is wrong with the father, who is kept locked in the basement -- becomes a man obsessed with organization. His first major achievement in government work, as a librarian, is creating the card catalog of all the items in the Library of Congress, which he proudly boast of during his one and only date with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). Hoover the adult is a man who has never had a friend and has never developed social skills of any kind. One date with Ms. Gandy puts an end to any social interaction but her explanation that she didn't want to marry anyway leads to a lifelong commitment as his personal secretary.
Hoover will then take a position in the Department of Justice, an agency filled with corrupt cops and political hacks. Long story short, a bombing at the house of the Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Peterson) puts Hoover in position to build a name by deporting hundreds of alleged Bolshevik (the precursors to "commies") radical thinkers, ending riots that wracked cities like Chicago. The government responds by firing the entire Department of Justice, save for Hoover who is put in charge of building a new "Bureau of Investigation" within the DoJ, from scratch. From scratch means little budget, no jurisdiction or auto request warrants, no guns, no lab, no nothing. Hoover is determined to organize a national registry of the newfangled cards with "finger prints" on them. He is convinced that, with all information centralized under his command, crime doesn't stand a chance.
He was right, of course, but it took the utter screw up of all local and state police authorities called in to solve the mystery of "who kidnapped the baby son of Charles Lindbergh?" to make the need for a national bureau clear. Once the baby's body is discovered, Hoover scrimps to bring together scientists to analyze evidence . . . everything you see every week on "CSI" or "Law & Order" or any cop show. The seeds for police procedure all seem to spring from the determination to have everything organized as per J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover, while insisting that the Bureau is more important than any individual Special Agent, nonetheless manages to get his name inserted into newspaper articles, FBI themed comic books all sorts of things. By the 1960s, when "The FBI" was a hit television series, the show didn't even need to mention Mr. Hoover's name. To our recollection it, and the Bureau, were one and the same.
Which brings us to the only other player in this story, ClydeTolson (Armie Hammer). Introduced to Hoover by amutual acquaintance it is Tolson who is obviously struck by Hoover. Lacking all the necessary requirments for the Special Agent position for which he applies, Tolson has, oh, a "there's something about him" quality that strikes Hoover, who hires him. Tolson would remain at Hoover's side for the rest of (their) life. Those expecting some great, final revelation regarding this relationship or any thing else involving Hoover's personal life are going to be disappointed.
You won't realize that disappointment until the film is done. The flip flopping back and forth through time is enough to hold your attention. The performances are all fine but, as we wrote above, we suspect the film might have delivered more power if it had run chronologically. Those who enter determined to see a mighty icon of law and order brought down to his knees will be crushed to see a small and petty man work the system in ways that can make the regular person whimper.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to J. Edgar, he would have paid . . .
Ah, but at least Hoover isn't happy. . .
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