I didn’t know a lot about J. Edgar Hoover apart from the top-line stuff. I knew he was instrumental in forming the FBI as we know it today. He was involved with the gang busting of the 1930s. He kept secret files, one of which detailed Eleanor Roosevelt’s alleged lesbian affairs. The FBI Headquarters is named after him. And, well… there’s that whole dressing up in women’s clothing thing.

I’m a fan of historical bio-pics. Particularly those that are packing the one-two punch of Leonardo DiCaprio as the star and Clint Eastwood at the helm. When I saw the first trailers for J. Edgar, I—probably like many of you—said, “I’m definitely seeing that.” When the fine folks here at guttermagazine.com asked me if I wanted to review J. Edgar, I said “Absolutely. Sign me up. It’s at Landmark? Oh snap! Even better.”

Does it feel like I’m setting you up for disappointment? Like I’m about to tell you it was a horrible mess? Let me tamp that down. No, it wasn’t a horrible mess. I left the theater with an uneasy feeling, but after gnawing on it for a few days, I have to say it’s rather exceptional. Though, you have to be willing to chew on it. Roll it around a bit. It asks that of us. It’s not straight forward. It isn’t the ultimate G-Man versus Al Capone. It’s not some heroic telling of how Lindbergh baby kidnapping was solved, though Hoover probably would have wished it so. There’s a lot more going on than just that, which is at once quite surprising and if you’re able to stick with it, it’s quite satisfying.

Hoover was a jerk. They make no attempts to steer away from that. He doesn’t grow into being a jerk as he assumes power. He’s pretty much a pill the whole way through. The movie bounces from the 60’s Kennedy era to the 20’s and 30’s during Hoover’s rise to power. The action of the bureau (sussing out communist and anarchists, the Lindberg kidnapping, Dilinger, etc.) is being told to a string of agents taking dictation from Hoover. They are periodically replaced as they do something that irritates the FBI Director. To the side of all of that is his relationship with Associate Director, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

Hoover inherited a couple traits from his mother (Judi Dench), chiefly paranoia and perception. She doted on her son, buying him suits and a rather elegant ring. She was concerned with the way things looked. Even to the extent of hiding away her husband, Hoover’s father, in the basement so that none would get a glimpse his unsightly senility. She too was a driver of Hoover’s obsession with rooting out communists and anarchist in America, the crusade that laid the foundation for his rise.

Hoover was obsessed with how the bureau was perceived. Much of the film is a crafted to fit they way he wanted events to have unfolded. We see it through his influence of popular culture, having involvement in the portrayal of FBI Agents in everything from TV to movies to comic books. He was particularly concerned with the look of his agents, wanting them to dress well, be clean shaven and physically fit.

And both paranoia and perception kept him at a constant arm’s length from Tolson. The movie wasn’t subtle about suggesting the romantic relationship. It was obviously more. It never got actually physical, letting Hoover’s fears keep from letting it go that far, trapping Tolson in limbo. He obviously loves the man and you see Hoover has the same feelings around the edges of the persona he tries so hard to create and fortify over the years. Very few people know what’s on the other side and Tolson is one of them.

What you find in this movie is a character this is too complex to present in a manner that might have been easier to consume. It required the time to chew and digest… sorry if this metaphor I’m caught in is a bit too much. This movie isn’t just one bite. It’s several courses and it’s not until you’re done the whole thing that you realize that all of the flavors go together and they do so wonderfully.

We’re creeping into Oscar season. This is the time of year all the contenders start hitting the screens. This is sure to make the list of the 10 nominated films. Guaranteed. I’m certain you’ll also see Eastwood and Dicaprio also get their nods. And though his performance in The Social Network was much stronger, you may even see Armie Hammer’s name up there. He was good and maybe even better than that if the make-up to age him didn’t look like a mask Patrick Swayze might wear to rob a bank. Good lord. They flawlessly duplicated him in Social Network. They aged Dicaprio without making him look cartoonish. What went wrong with his face?

See J. Edgar. I’m not so foolish to think I actually sway opinions one way or the other with these things, but I can at least affirm your initial reaction. Go. Enjoy. Spend some time with it after you leave the theater.

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