First, let's get this out of the way. I am a mere (ha!) 36 years old and was not even born yet when J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972. The only reference I really had for him was Bob Hoskins's brief appearance in Oliver Stone's Nixon. I knew nothing about the man going into this movie, except that he essentially created the FBI as we now know it and that he was rumored to be a homosexual and occasional cross-dresser. Those latter details have so permeated our culture's portrait of him that I didn't know until a couple of months ago that these were unconfirmed rumors. Well, I guess they'd have to have been, given the time period.
Not that that matters, as both his (repressed) homosexuality and the cross-dressing are accepted as fact in this film, though perhaps not in the way you might expect. The film goes back and forth between the young Hoover, in the very first days of his leadership in the Bureau of Investigation, and the older Hoover, in the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon years. Both versions are played rather spectacularly by Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, the "old age" makeup is pretty bad and at times distracting, but the performance is so good - a true "movie star" performance - that most of the time you can forget about it. The older Hoover is dictating a memoir and telling stories (in more senses than one) about his early days in the FBI, notably his part in the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping. These stories of his professional life show him as a man desperate to be respected and admired, and desperate for his Bureau to be respected. I don't know how accurate this is, but the film indirectly credits Hoover with the implementation of a lot of the basic tools of investigation that we take for granted today (i.e., fingerprinting and keeping a crime scene free from contamination). There's a great scene, when he arrives at the Lindbergh estate, where he chastises the local police for carelessly traipsing over potential evidence and handling the ransom letter with bare hands. It's bizarre to think, in our current culture that is so saturated in police dramas and investigative storytelling, that it wasn't long ago when most people had no idea how important that kind of thing could be.
The movie doesn't raise Hoover up too high, though. It's unclear how much of the older Hoover's flashbacks are actually being dictated to the memoir writer, and that could very well be by design. Hoover often acted officially out of personal motives (jealousy and paranoia), and the film definitely doesn't let him off the hook for that, but you can tell that Hoover's version of events has been in his head so long and so firmly that whatever he's exaggerated or rationalized to himself has become the truth in his mind.
Hoover's political life story in the film is wrapped around his personal story, a story that I suspect no one alive can do more than guess at and extrapolate from facts and testimony. We see his social awkwardness, which the script attributes both to his devotion to his career and to a bitter struggle between societal expectations and his own desires. He attempts to woo and even propose marriage to typist Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) after knowing her only a few days, but seems dreadfully uncomfortable around other women. His mother (played by Judi Dench) loves him very much, and quite possibly knows the truth about his ambivalence to women, but makes it unmistakably clear that she does not approve of homosexuals (her conversation with Edgar about "Daffy" is devastating).
Which brings me to Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, perhaps better known as The Social Network's Winklevii), who Hoover made his Deputy at the Bureau (though he was nowhere near qualified) and who was possibly the love of his life. There were some giggles in the audience during their scenes together and the obvious tension between them, but this story is really the heart of the movie. What's heartbreaking is that these two men clearly love one another, but while Tolson doesn't have a problem subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) expressing his feelings for Edgar, Edgar never reciprocates any of those sentiments and it may be that he can't even admit his feelings to his own self. Their feelings for each other are never played for a laugh, and it's just so unbelievably sad to see how much they mean to each other and know that they can't even properly express it, even in private. The image of Hammer's Tolson reading a love letter, written by someone else but that Edgar had once partially read aloud, is one of the most moving things I've seen in a film this year - seeing him agonizing over things he heard in Edgar's voice and wishes had been addressed to him.
I have to address the cross-dressing thing, because the film does, and I was very impressed with how they did it. Again, it wasn't done for a laugh or even a hint of a joke. Of course, it wouldn't have been in the movie at all if there hadn't been the rumors, but it's not an "oh yeah, and he wore dresses" kind of thing. It's a legitimate expression of grief, and I totally bought it.
This film does have some issues. I thought the flashbacks were occasionally a little awkward, and as I said before the aging makeup was mostly awful. It wasn't so bad on Naomi Watts, but DiCaprio and Hammer looked like something from Madame Tussaud's. Again, though, the performances more than make up for it. I did feel like some of the historical cameos were more impressions than characters (e.g., Burn Notice's Jeffrey Donovan as Bobby Kennedy), but they weren't too distracting.
In the director's chair is the Man, the Myth, the Legend - Clint Eastwood. If you've seen any of his other films, you probably know what to expect here. It's not bombastic but quiet, steady, and sure. Eastwood also composed the score for the film, which is a very subtle, mostly (perhaps purely) piano score. A critic made the observation that Eastwood spent his career as an actor playing men who were above the law, like The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry, and that he's spent his career as a director telling stories about how these kinds of men are obsolete, which is part of what this movie is about. I can't help observing, though, that - for better or worse - the FBI is what it is today because of Hoover, and whatever else he might feel about his legacy, he'd probably be proud of that.