Thanksgiving Movies: J. Edgar

Notwithstanding the considerable merits of talking-animal movies and teenage vampire flicks, I recently saw J. Edgar, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays the controversial former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Knowing next to nothing about Hoover’s career at the FBI, I expected and received an outstanding performance from DiCaprio, who has intentionally and successfully avoided being typecast and has a penchant for playing complex characters (think Catch Me If You Can, Blood Diamond, Gangs of New York). The movie fuses Hoover’s personal and professional lives into one seamless narrative and jumps back and forth in time through this infamous man’s life.

The movie begins with Hoover dictating his autobiography to one of his many ghostwriters, which gives the audience the impression that he’s a bad man, trying to use revisionist history to disguise his transgressions and magnify his virtues. As we enter Hoover’s mind, we watch him rise to Director of the FBI, due largely to his admitted lack of social life and non-professional interests. Upon becoming Director, Hoover interviews Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer, who portrayed both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), with whom he is soon smitten. As the two men become older, Tolson falls in love with his boss. This relationship climaxes with a passionate fight between Hoover and Tolson, who end up wrestling on the ground, in true Brokeback Mountain fashion. Despite the decline of their romantic relationship (Hoover never marries, but is rumored to have had affairs with several famous women), Hoover and Tolson remain close until Hoover’s death.

This movie is certainly one of the best I’ve seen in a while. In addition to DiCaprio, the cast features great performances from Judi Dench (Hoover’s overbearing mother) and Naomi Watts (his loyal secretary). What makes Hoover’s story so interesting is his blunt endorsement of Machiavellian ethics in order to promote national security. In this regard, Hoover may have been ahead of his time, though the movie makes no attempts to persuade the audience one way or the other.

Fun Facts: For scenes in which DiCaprio was required to play the older Hoover, he used prosthetic makeup that took five hours to apply each day. He also indulged in chocolate cupcakes to put on a few pounds.

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