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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

J. Edgar | Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts | Review

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  4_Chicks_Small Jacqueline Monahan

Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for
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J. Edgar | Leonardo DiCaprio | Armie Hammer | Judi Dench | Naomi Watts | Review

No matter what you may already know about the legendary J. Edgar Hoover (a sexually repressed, cross-dressing mama’s boy who became the nation’s self-appointed moral arbiter) did you ever in your wildest dreams peg Leonardo DiCaprio to play the “funny little man” as Charles Lindbergh once called him?

Portraying Hoover from 1919 to his death in 1972, DiCaprio morphs into the jowly, balding, overweight law enforcement titan so convincingly that it’s hard not to let the unappealing character color your opinion of the film.

As the founder and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for five decades, Hoover took it upon himself to wiretap those he deemed suspicious, like activists, communists and those he felt threatened by (Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, among many others). He operated with impunity, serving under the administration of eight presidents (Coolidge to Nixon).

In addition to collecting evidence using illegal methods and gathering secret files on political leaders, Hoover is credited with instituting forensic laboratories and a centralized fingerprint file.  He jealously ruined agent careers if they got too popular or outshone him (Melvin Purvis fell victim for his Dillinger ambush and acclaim).  Hoover made it his professional business to get in other people’s personal business, even though his own personal life was anything but normal.

Hoover had two trusted confidantes:  Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), an associate director of the FBI, and Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his personal secretary.  He adored his mother, Annie (Judi Dench) even promising her indirectly that he would never give in to his “daffodil” tendencies.  A mother knows these things, you see.

Today Hoover might have been a transgender candidate, but back then the man was so closeted as to not even dare to approach the doorknob leading to “out”.

The film intercuts Hoover in his later years with the beginning of his law enforcement career.  His introduction to Gandy and Tolson as well as his ongoing mother-son relationship reveals a conflicted, devoted, petty, and ultimately unhappy martinet corrupted by absolute power.  The story unfolds in his own words as he dictates his memoirs to junior agents.  What he tells them is not always factual, but lives in his mind as a kind of personal mythology.

Hoover’s involvement with the Lindbergh kidnapping arrest, with constructing staged photo ops depicting him personally arresting gangsters, and with dictating inflammatory correspondence that even his trusted secretary objects to all serve to illuminate the self-righteous, egotistical, spotlight-seeking crime fighter.

Hoover’s relationship with Tolson has an unresolved depth; some say they were ‘brotherly” toward each other, but the film suggests more.

Leonardo DiCaprio is to be applauded for his success in portraying someone so utterly alien to him.  He’s not short, heavy or balding, but he is J. Edgar Hoover. Gone are DiCaprio’s famous blue eyes, traded in for Hoover’s lifeless brown.  DiCaprio makes the stretch seem effortless.

Armie Hammer labors under stiff makeup as Tolson in his later years, but shows fearlessness with a portrayal that suggests the man wore a looser moral straightjacket than Hoover.

Dame Judi Dench lends a stiff upper lip to the starchy mother, intent on keeping her son on the literal “straight and narrow” with an arched eyebrow of disapproval and softly spoken reproaches.  Naomi Watts is a calm island of integrity as Hoover’s devoted secretary.

Director Clint Eastwood covers Hoover territory with respect but not necessarily admiration, with a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Milk).  There is a fascination, but it’s at arm’s length.  Eastwood isn’t saying “what a great guy,” simply “what a guy.”  The viewer gets to decide what kind of guy that is.

J. Edgar is a film worthy of investigation; no secret file required.

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