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21 January 2012

Mama Can't Buy You Love

This week is obviously the week for dominant, controlling mother figures in the movies. On Tuesday, it was Vanessa Redgrave playing the formidable mother of the title character (Ralph Fiennes) in Coriolanus; today, I watched the equally formidable Judi Dench as the mother of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo Di Caprio) in Clint Eastwood's new film J. Edgar.

I knew very little about Hoover before I saw the film. I knew he had founded the FBI (although not that he ran the bureau and the Bureau of Investigation that preceded it for nearly 50 years) and I remembered a little from Public Enemies but otherwise, I went into J. Edgar with a blank slate. And I don't think I'm much clearer on the real Hoover now, even after a two-hour movie, but that may be due to the controversies that emerged during his later years and after his death. Yes, he may have championed forensic science, fact-based investigations and the concept of a national crime database, but did he also lie, overstep his jurisdiction and rub a number of important people--including various presidents--up the wrong way? Eastwood's film tries to portray both Hoover's achievements and his personal and professional failings but this paints quite a confusing picture.

The movie opens in the early 1960s and Hoover (still played by Di Caprio, heavily swathed in prosthetics) is looking back on his career as he talks separately to two people from the FBI's PR department (actually, one of them may have there for another reason; either I missed that bit or it wasn't clear). First, we see the bright young Hoover being singled out--for his work ethic and his lack of interest in dating or starting a family, as much as for his ideas--by the Attorney General and promoted to the position of director of the then Bureau of Investigation. Through the older Hoover's memories, we see some of his triumphs--heading up the operation to arrest John Dillinger, tracking down the man he believed was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's soon and increasing the power and the remit of the FBI. Of course, we are seeing all of this through Hoover's eyes and, it seems, he may not be the most reliable narrator--we know he likes to be in the spotlight and to take credit for things that may not be entirely his own achievements.

Early in his career, Hoover hires Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a young, smartly dressed but somewhat under-qualified chap to whom he has taken a shine. This begins a deep but often difficult life-long friendship and, the film, suggests perhaps a closer relationship than that. Trouble is, Hoover grew up in the shadow of his aforementioned controlling mother, with whom he still lived until her death when he was in his forties. The relationship seems Oedipal at times but more than anything, his mother wants him to succeed and to bring glory back to their family name. She wants him to get married because it would look good and when he tries to tell her that he doesn't like dancing--especially not with women--she reminds him what happened to a kid they knew who was "daffy" and who ended up killing himself. After his mother's death, we see Hoover trying on some of her clothes and jewellery but this felt more creepy and Norman Bates-like than a representation of his repressed sexuality. Nonetheless, Tolson is still there with Hoover, right until the end of the movie; he died three years later and the two are buried close together in the Congressional Cemetery.

Di Caprio is excellent in this film and Hammer puts in a decent performance too, even though the prosthetics the older version of his character wears seem less realistic than Di Caprio's and are pretty distracting. I haven't even mentioned Naomi Watts's role as Helen Gandy, who was Hoover's secretary for over 50 years. As usual, Watts was good, though I didn't realise it was her until the end of the film! The structure felt clumsy: we keep jumping back and forth and then back a bit further and then further into the future. I'm also still unsure as to what we are supposed to make of Hoover at the end of the film: that he is a complex character with both good and bad in him? If so, this is fair enough, to some extent, although it would have been nicer for the film to come slightly off the fence, one way or another, and for the direction to be a little clearer.

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