Honest Abe Says: 3 Stars
Speculation reigns on the secretive Bureau director's private life, but Eastwood's commitment to era authenticity while detailing Hoover's most notable exploits are impressive.
Director Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black offer an intimate invitation to the secret life of one of American history's most secretive icons in J. EDGAR. Leonardo DiCaprio loses himself in the role of the FBI boss, with Armie Hammer as his right hand man (and lover) Clyde Tolson. Naomi Watts rounds out the all-star cast as Hoover's lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy. When it was released last fall, in spite of the talent involved, the movie failed to impress with both audiences and critics. But what about historians? Did Eastwood and company fudge the facts or give us gospel on the nation's most powerful man of the 20th century?
What It Got Right:
The film's greatest strength is its commitment to accuracy. In the details it does cover, J. EDGAR is right on track with the historical record. The story takes us through the 1919 anarchist bombing, the deportation of Emma Goldman and Hoover's assault on Communism, the Lindbergh baby case, and of course, Hoover's unusual private life. The film meticulously holds to the truth when dealing with anything even remotely public. Spot on is Hoover's keeping of secret files, his manipulation of every president he served under, and his need to validate himself by personally making arrests. It's the minutia of Hoover's fight to overcome a nagging stammer, his apparent fear of dancing with Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela, and his favorite recreation - a day at the races - that prove the filmmakers were intent on bringing history to life.
Accurate is Hoover's ascent in the bureau (he was indeed appointed acting director by Harlan Fiske Stone) and his specified method of selecting agents. Eastwood and Black portray the bureau chief's public image truthfully while presenting a cryptic personal life. Even included are inconsequential nuggets for history buffs like the mental illness of Hoover's father, Dick, and the decor of Hoover's bedroom, where he was found dead in the manner the film purports.
What It Got Wrong:
Nobody's perfect, and J. EDGAR's finest point of historical contention comes in its meat and potatoes: the romance. Though nothing explicit is ever seen, the film purports that Hoover and his number two man, Clyde Tolson, were lovers for more than forty years. It isn't implausible, but there is very little evidence that the two were more than friends. Hoover didn't hide the fact that he ate lunch and dinner every day with Tolson, or even that he vacationed with him. As put off by homosexuals as Hoover was, if he had been hiding a relationship with Tolson, he could have done it better than he did. Attorney Roy Cohn, who was also gay, searched for dirt on Hoover, hoping to confirm the suspicion. He found none. Not only was Hoover linked to Lela Rogers, but the love of his life may have been actress Dorothy Lamour, who is referenced in the film, sparking the fight between Hoover and Tolson. Hoover had a longtime friendship with Lamour, and when asked about a sexual relationship with Hoover, Lamour simply replied, "I cannot deny it." The only account of Hoover ever cross-dressing came from Susan Rosenstiel, the wife of a friend. She claimed Cohn introduced Hoover to her wearing a fluffly black dress and high heels. Many have refuted this, and Cohn never mentioned anything of the sort. In the film, we see a devastated Hoover slipping on his freshly dead mother's dress and necklace before collapsing in angry tears of self-loathing.
And there's so much we don't see. Never do we sense that this was actually a popular man just after World War II, whose power was publicly approved. The film doesn't cover President Truman's attempt to depict Hoover's bureau as a kind of U.S. Gestapo. It doesn't delve into his hunting down of Nazi spies or his influence in McCarthyism.
There was a lot that they could have done. Many chapters of J. Edgar Hoover's life were cinema-worthy. Instead of broadening the scope, the story Eastwood chose to tell was kept relatively small, combining known facts with a few surprising truths, and then an ample serving of conjecture.