The juxtaposition of Hoover’s leadership and secrets is carried throughout the film with Eastwood’s signature directing style and DiCaprio’s intense portrayal. The lead actor transforms from a young, ambitious man into an older, arrogant and somewhat delusional head of the most powerful department in Washington, D.C., who is telling his version of the truth of FBI agents for a book.
As an institution of respect, the film delves into the agency’s humble beginnings with Hoover at the lead. He was appointed to the position at age 24 while working as a staffer at the Department of Justice with Attorney General Alexander Palmer.
Hoover’s vision for the newly formed Bureau of Investigation was innovative. Anarchy was always imminent, he emphasized, and campaigned for a fingerprint database and a crime lab — all of which were crucial in protecting the nation.
However, his reputation for arrogance and awkwardness resulted in a lack of respect. He was ridiculed for his ideas. His crime lab was dubbed a science fair project and he was told a fingerprint database would be useless.
But Hoover never took no for an answer. He was determined to gain respect for what he could accomplish and what it could mean for the country and, most importantly, his ego. His other goal: Fear from political figures who were at risk of being exposed.
Hoover was close to three people in his life: his mother, Annie; Helen Gandy, his personal secretary; and Clyde Tolson, FBI associate director. Portrayed by Judi Dench, Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer, respectively, the relationships with all three people are put on display intensely, powerfully and passionately.
Although Dench’s scenes are sparse, they are intriguing as they reveal the secrets about Hoover’s private life. While Annie’s lauds her son’s achievements, she also hinders him by trying to force him to be something he’s not. In the film, it seems as if Hoover wants to please his mother first and himself second. However, one scene in particular will display why he will never achieve that.
Gandy, the other woman in Hoover’s life, was more than a secretary. She is part of the reason why Hoover was feared, even after his death. In addition to the fingerprint database, crime lab and files on criminals were private and confidential files, seen only by these two people who both carried these secrets to their graves.
Tolson was not only Hoover’s associate director, but also his only friend. Early on, Tolson was rumored to be gay and taking vacations with Hoover only added to the speculation of the two being lovers. From subtle hints to overt actions, the film sheds light on the fascination with these two men which sometimes overshadows their influence on history.
Speaking of history, Eastwood is not short on this in this film. Hoover’s influence on this country is clear, from the impact of the Lindbergh kidnapping and trial, the creation of the “G-Men” character, and the Great Depression and mobsters, and controversial wiretapping. However, the film also explores his sheer racism and hatred of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the SCLC and the notion of civil rights. He also had a strong disdain for the Kennedys, and the tense relationship is put on display with interactions with Robert F. Kennedy, portrayed by Jeffrey Donovan.
As his fame grew and the department began to gain respect, Hoover began to feel as if he accomplished what he set out to do in the early 1900s. However, as he watched motorcades of presidents for decades, he realized he would never achieve that type of notoriety and accolades. Regardless of how presidents and other officials across the country were intimidated by him, Hoover would always feel like that awkward man in his twenties.
History aside, the director also portrays Hoover as a man who was fighting against himself. Considering his penchant for keeping secrets, it’s hard to believe Hoover would expose himself as a homosexual and cross-dresser. Therefore, scenes touching on these subjects were probably pieced together from decades of rumors.
DiCaprio’s talent is undeniable and has been for a long time. The power he brings to the role is only matched by his portrayal of William Costigan in the Oscar-winning film “The Departed.” Even as he transforms into a man in his seventies, DiCaprio never loses the intensity. Although the host for the Academy Awards is questionable, a nomination should be automatic for this role.
Hammer, a relatively new actor, is best known for portraying the Winklevoss twins in another Oscar-winning film “The Social Network.” Tolson goes from a striking young, healthy man to an elderly stroke victim, and Hammer carries out his role to the fullest. Hammer carries the same intensity as DiCaprio, although in a different way. Again, another potential Oscar contender.
Hoover was a man before his time, and audiences will easily see this. He was prophetic, ruthless and unwavering. However, he was also insecure, conflicted and despised. However, his impact on the country is undeniable, and this film does him justice.