When I was young, the FBI had a sterling reputation that matched its motto: Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity. It was partially accomplished by the savvy use of the media. 1959’s The FBI Story, starring Jimmy Stewart as a stalwart agent, was regularly played on television, and you could watch the exploits of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on The F.B.I. (“A Quinn Martin production” as the voice-over reminded us each week) between 1965 and 1974. I even had a comic book that told the history of the agency. Ever since the 1930’s, the face of law enforcement was J. Edgar Hoover, the head G-man from the agency’s inception to his death in May of 1972.
He died one month before the Watergate break-in that eventually lead to blowing open Hoover’s history of semi-legal to blatantly illegal actions pursuing information on politicians, rivals, and those he personally considered traitors. Hoover understood that knowledge is power. While Nixon had his famous enemies list, Hoover had secret files to back his up, and had no compunction against using those files to blackmail or to destroy lives. In those days, the famous Pogo caption rang painfully true: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Now almost 40 years after Hoover’s death, Clint Eastwood has produced a biopic of Hoover. It could be ironic that the actor who played Dirty Harry (who was at least temporarily the face of law enforcement, though it was equal parts wish fulfillment) has finally brought Hoover’s life to the screen. Instead Eastwood gives us a warts and all portrait of Hoover that is also sympathetic to this contradictory and sad man.
The movie uses the device of having Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) dictate his biography as it jumps between the elderly Hoover and his younger self. In a subtle illustration of Hoover’s paranoia, he dictates to a dozen different agents – no one person gets the whole story. There are echoes of our time. Hoover’s initial success in the Justice Department in 1919 is against terrorist bombers who attempted to hit multiple targets at the same time. Hoover shows he’s willing to twist laws to get people he’s judged to be guilty. His actions lead to the ouster of the Attorney General, but Hoover is appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation by the replacement AG.
Early on he meets two important people in his life. Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) is a pool secretary at the Bureau. After an awkward date, she becomes his personal secretary, a position she holds until Hoover’s death. Hoover also meets and then recruits into the F.B.I. a young lawyer, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, The Social Network). The two become lifelong companions. But the major influence in Hoover’s life is his iron-willed mother, Anna Marie Hoover (Judi Dench).
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) has done a commendable job distilling the essence of the man into 137 minutes. The most scandalous charges about Hoover’s personal life are covered in the last quarter of the film, but with a sensitivity and understanding that removes the prurient quality. It reveals Hoover as a man who could not even be honest with himself. The quest for power leaves a vacuum in his soul.
This is one of Eastwood’s most ambitious movies, capturing the style and feel for scenes spread out over 50 years. Eastwood not only accomplishes that task but makes the result compelling. His output over the last eight years – Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus – is a body of work most directors would be happy to have for a career. Even the curious Hereafter, flawed as it is, is still watchable.
The supporting cast is excellent across the board. Watts submerges herself in the role of Gandy, so much so you hardly recognize her. Armie Hammer is beautifully subtle as Tolson, until Hoover and Tolson finally cross the boundary of simple friendship. Then Hammer shows raw, undisguised, pain-filled love. Crucial for the movie is Hoover’s relationship with his mother, and Judi Dench nails it. One scene – you’ll know it when you see it – is an absolute tour de force.
But the movie belongs to DiCaprio. He is on screen in almost every frame, and his embodiment of Hoover is riveting. He even makes you think he’s Hoover’s height.
Several ideas Hoover championed have become the standard in police work, including a central collection of fingerprints and scientific crime scene investigation. Newer innovations such as DNA sequencing and the ViCAP data base were built on the foundation created by Hoover. Yet the egomania and narcissism that can make local officials think twice before involving the FBI is also his legacy. Hoover was a man who collected secrets like trading cards. It’s fitting that his own secrets are finally laid bare in this powerful character study.