The most powerful man in the United States is not always the president. The film “J. Edgar” shows that the first director of the FBI often held more control over the affairs of America than even the elected leaders of the nation.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives an outstanding performance as J. Edgar Hoover in this historically-based drama which poses some great questions about our liberties in America today.
The film chronicles Hoover’s life through a series of flashbacks as Hoover dictates to a series of biographers.
His story begins before his first job with the predecessor to the FBI, the Bureau of Investigation, in the 1920s and finishes with his death in 1972.
Hoover devotes his entire life to his work, constantly working to reform the FBI and make it a better crime-solving unit through the use of forensics and other modern techniques.
Starting with controlling the Bolshevik problem in the United States, the film shows how Hoover gradually worked to gain more power for the Bureau and ensure that no matter where a crime is committed, the power of the individual States in the Union does not supersede that of the FBI.
Once the Bolsheviks are exiled, imprisoned, or otherwise silenced, Hoover moves on to face other problems such as the notorious gangsters of the 1930s and the sex scandals of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
In addition to his professional life, “J. Edgar” also probes into Hoover’s personal life. Although he worked almost constantly, the film shows Hoover’s relationship with his mother, with whom he lives until her death.
Hoover’s deputy at the FBI, Clyde Tolson also plays an integral role in the film. Hoover relies on Tolson as his right-hand man and also as a homosexual partner.
Hoover consistently runs into conflict with various members of the government throughout his long career.
His methods of over-coming these problems present a man who is not afraid to use his oratory skills, position of influence, or even blackmail to gain the control that he felt necessary. Hoover’s ultimate goal is the safety of the nation.
Director Clint East-wood’s choice of making the story develop through flashbacks at first made the film difficult to follow. I was occasionally unsure of when certain parts in the film were taking place in Hoover’s life.
Once the characters are established, however, it allowed for a different narrative approach which matched events early in Hoover’s life to the events in Hoover’s later years as FBI director in the 60s and early 70s. The shot transitions switching between time periods were especially clever.
Constantly plagued by the next threat that will lead to the downfall of the country, Hoover’s greatest fear is that when a good man does nothing, evil will overrun American liberties.
Hoover consistently treads on the thin line of overstepping his boundaries as the FBI’s director. More often than not, he places what he considers to be the safety of the nation ahead of the established laws.
Hoover’s own actions and ideals reflect issues that are extremely relevant in America today, and the film gives several less than subtle clues to point it out. It asks the question: at what point does the need for safety override the need for liberty?