Interwoven throughout Clint Eastwood's biopic of J. Edgar Hoover is Hoover dictating his "Untitled FBI Story" to a series of young agents. One agent asks if the story of Hoover and the FBI can be separated. It's hard to say because for better or worse Hoover was the FBI for most of its existence. He became the Bureau's head in 1924 and stayed there through eight presidents. He asks another agent who the most famous man in the world is and the agent replies, "You, sir."
Leonardo DiCaprio crafts a subtle portrait of a man who few truly knew because Hoover didn't even know himself. In the film, Hoover is portrayed as a do-gooder whose biggest joy is to impress his mother Annie (Judi Dench, JANE EYRE). It is believed that Hoover was a secret drag queen, but the film doesn't delve into salacious details. It presents the facts fairly straight forward. He was a life long bachelor who lived with his mother until she died. And once the tall, handsome Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, THE SOCIAL NETWORK) joined the Bureau, they were inseparable. Hoover seems to have a classic case of transference where he moralizes to the public and struggles with secrets behind closed doors.
Personality wise Hoover comes off chiefly paranoid. His desire to monitor every radical in the country is his first motivation, spurred by his fears of the Bolshevik revolution in his early days with the Justice Department. But that paranoia spilled over into rivals and he began to monitor anyone he deemed a threat to him and his beloved FBI. Outside of Tolson and his mother, the only other person he truly trusted was his longtime secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, KING KONG), who was the keeper and protector of his secret files. While he keep his sex life very private, he had a knack for recording the sex lives of presidents and their wives and using it to keep him firmly in place.
Eastwood, working from MILK writer Dustin Lance Black's script, seems critical of Hoover, but not unfair. In a poignant voice over moment, Hoover talks about not repeating the mistakes of our past. While he might be talking about radicals, what we're thinking is all the wiretapping on Americans he has done without warrants. But still, the film pays credit where credit is due and highlights Hoover's progressive dedication to forensic science, which modernized detective work. The detail of the expert work done in the Lindberg baby kidnapping is like early CSI.
Hoover was a man obsessed with the way things looked, especially himself. He was meticulous about the appearance of his G-men. He asks one agent with a "flashy" suit whether he believes he is working in a saloon. When his skills as a detective are called into question by Congress, he goes out into the field more… or at least to the photo ops more. The image of honest, respected government detectives was something he consciously crafted to the point where the line between fabrication and the truth became blurred. It reminded me of Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN where the character says if you have the truth and the legend, print the legend.
Some have complained that the film doesn't go after Hoover enough, needing the savage approach of someone like Oliver Stone. But despite its flaws (the music is too sentimental at times and the ending has too many endings like Eastwood's CHANGLING), the film is like Stone's NIXON in many ways. Both films are about two powerful paranoid men who tried to do good, but were brought down by their own foibles. The real tragedy of Hoover's life is that all he wanted was to be respected, but his pettiness and hypocrisy made him a public shame in many people's eyes. There was a bit of a radical lurking in his own heart and that was who he was really trying to imprison.