J. Edgar

J. Edgar Information

J. Edgar is a 2011 American biographical drama film directed, co-produced, and scored by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dustin Lance Black, the film focuses on the career of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover from the Palmer Raids onwards, including an examination of his private life as an alleged closeted homosexual.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench and Ed Westwick. J. Edgar opened the AFI Fest 2011 in Los Angeles on November 3, 2011, and had its limited release on November 9, followed by wide release on November 11.


The film opens with J. Edgar Hoover in his office during his later years. He asks that a writer, known as Agent Smith, be let in, so that he may tell the story of the origin of the FBI for the sake of the public. Hoover explains that the story begins in 1919, when A. Mitchell Palmer was Attorney General and Hoover's boss at the Justice Department. Palmer suffers an assassination attempt, but is unharmed when the bomb explodes earlier than intended. Hoover recalls that the police handling of the crime scene was primitive, and that it was that night that he recognized the importance of criminal science. Later, Hoover visits his mother, Anna Marie, and tells her that Palmer has put him in charge of a new anti-radical division, and that he has already begun compiling a list of suspected radicals. He leaves to meet Helen Gandy, who has just started as a secretary at the Justice Department. Hoover takes Gandy to the Library of Congress, and shows her the card catalog system he devised. He muses about how easy it would be to solve crimes if every citizen were as easily identifiable as the books in the library. When Hoover attempts to kiss her, she recoils. Hoover gets down on his knees and asks her to marry him, citing her organization and education, but his request is once again denied. However, Gandy agrees to become his personal secretary.

Despite his close monitoring of suspected foreign radicals, Hoover finds that the Department of Labor refuses to deport anyone without clear evidence of a crime; however, Anthony Caminetti, the commissioner general of immigration dislikes the prominent anarchist Emma Goldman. Hoover arranges to discredit her marriage and make her eligible for deportation, setting a precedent of deportation for radical conspiracy. After several Justice Department raids of suspected radical groups, many leading to deportation, Palmer loses his job as Attorney General. Under a subsequent Attorney General, Harlan F. Stone, Hoover is made director of the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation. He is introduced to Clyde Tolson, a recently graduated lawyer, and takes his business card. Later, while reviewing job applications with Helen Gandy, Hoover asks if Tolson had applied. Gandy says he had, and Hoover interviews and hires Tolson.

The Bureau pursues a string of gangster and bank robbery crimes across the Midwest, including the high profile John Dillinger, with general success. When the Lindbergh kidnapping captures national attention, President Hoover asks the Bureau to investigate. Hoover employs several novel techniques, including the monitoring of registration numbers on ransom bills, and expert analysis of the kidnapper's handwriting. The birth of the FBI Crime Lab is seen as a product of Hoover's determination to analyze the homemade wooden ladder left at the crime scene. When the monitored bills begin showing up in New York City, the investigators find a filling station attendant who wrote down the license plate number of the man who gave him the bill. This leads to the arrest, and eventual conviction, of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh child.

After going to a Shirley Temple film with Hoover's mother, Hoover and Tolson decide to go out to a club. When Ginger Rogers asks Hoover if he ever wishes he had someone to keep him warm at night, he responds that he has dedicated his life to the bureau. Ginger's mother asks Hoover to dance and he becomes agitated, saying that he and Tolson must leave, as they have a lot of work to do in the morning. When he gets home he shares his dislike of dancing with girls with his mother, and she tells him she would rather have a dead son than a "daffodil" for a son. She then insists on teaching him to dance, and they dance in her bedroom. Soon after, Hoover and Tolson go on a vacation to the horse races. That evening, Hoover tells Tolson that he cares deeply for him, and Tolson returns the feeling by stating that he loves Hoover. However, Hoover claims to be considering marriage to a young woman twenty years his junior, Dorothy Lamour, he has been seeing in New York City, provoking outrage from Tolson. Tolson accuses Hoover making a fool out of him and then begins throwing insults at Hoover, and consequently they begin throwing punches at each other and cause grave damage to the hotel room in the process; they eventually end up fighting on the floor. The fight ends when Tolson gets an upper hand over Hoover, and suddenly kisses him. Hoover demands that it must never happen again; Tolson says that it won't, and attempts to leave. Hoover apologizes and begs him to stay, but Tolson only says that if Hoover ever mentioned another woman again, their friendship would be over. He then leaves, with Hoover professing love for him moments after.

Years later, Hoover feels his strength begin to decline. He requires daily visits by a doctor, and Tolson suffers a stroke which leaves him in a severely weakened state. Convincing himself that he overheard Martin Luther King Jr. engage in extramarital sex, Hoover attempts to blackmail King Jr. into declining his Nobel Peace Prize by writing a letter threatening to expose his sexual life. The attempt proves ineffective, and King, Jr. accepts the prize. Hoover eventually begins to consider his mortality and tells Helen Gandy to destroy his secret files if he were to die to prevent Richard Nixon from possessing them. When Tolson appeals to Hoover to retire when Hoover comes to visit him, Hoover refuses, claiming that Nixon is going to destroy the bureau he has created. Tolson then accuses Hoover exaggerating his involvement in many of the bureau's actions and giving inaccurate details about some of events he encountered during his time with bureau as well.

Returning home one evening after work, Hoover, obviously weakened, goes upstairs. Shortly after, Tolson is called by Hoover's housekeeper and he goes upstairs to find Hoover dead next to his bed. Griefstricken, he gently kisses Hoover's forehead and covers his body with a sheet before walking out. The news of Hoover's death reaches Nixon, and while he does a eulogy on television for him, several members of Nixon's staff enter Hoover's office and proceed to rifle through the cabinets and drawers in search of Hoover's rumored "personal and confidential" files, but find them all to be empty. In the last scene, Helen Gandy is seen destroying stacks of files, assumed to be from Hoover's personal archive.


Charlize Theron, who was originally rumored to be playing Helen Gandy, dropped out of the project to do Snow White & the Huntsman and Eastwood considered Amy Adams before finally selecting Naomi Watts as Theron's replacement.


Critical response

Reviews have been mostly mixed, with many critics praising DiCaprio's performance but feeling that, overall, the film lacks coherence. As of May 19, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 44% of 211 critics have given the film a positive review with a rating average of 5.8 out of 10. The website's consensus is that, "Leonardo DiCaprio gives a predictably powerhouse performance, but J. Edgar stumbles in all other departments: cheesy makeup, poor lighting, confusing narrative, and humdrum storytelling." Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 59 based on 42 reviews.

Roger Ebert wrote that the film is "fascinating", "masterful", and praised DiCaprio's performance as a "fully-realized, subtle and persuasive performance, hinting at more than Hoover ever revealed, perhaps even to himself", awarding the film three and a half stars (out of four). Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a positive review, writing, "This surprising collaboration between director Clint Eastwood and Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tackles its trickiest challenges with plausibility and good sense, while serving up a simmeringly caustic view of its controversial subject's behavior, public and private." David Denby in The New Yorker magazine also liked the film, calling it a "nuanced account" and calling "Eastwood's touch light and sure, his judgment sound, the moments of pathos held just long enough."

J. Hoberman of The Village Voice wrote that "Although hardly flawless, Eastwood's biopic is his richest, most ambitious movie since the Letters From Iwo Jima-Flags of Our Fathers."

Peter Debruge of Variety gave the film a mixed review: "Any movie in which the longtime FBI honcho features as the central character must supply some insight into what made him tick, or suffer from the reality that the Bureau's exploits were far more interesting than the bureaucrat who ran it " a dilemma J. Edgar never rises above." David Edelstein of New York Magazine reacted negatively to the film and said that "It's too bad J. Edgar is so shapeless and turgid and ham-handed, so rich in bad lines and worse readings." He praised DiCaprio's performance: "There's something appealingly straightforward about the way he physicalizes Hoover's inner struggle, the body always slightly out of sync with the mind that vigilantly monitors every move."

Box office

The film opened limited in 7 theaters on November 9, grossing $52,645, and released wide on November 11, grossing $11,217,324 on its opening weekend, approximating the $12 million figure projected by the Los Angeles Times for the film's opening weekend in the United States and Canada. J. Edgar went on to gross $79 million worldwide.


Date of ceremony Award Category Recipient(s) Result
January 27, 2012 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Best Actor - International Leonardo DiCaprio
December 11, 2011 American Film Institute Top 10 Films J. Edgar
January 12, 2012 Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Leonardo DiCaprio
January 15, 2012 Golden Globe Awards Best Actor " Motion Picture Drama Leonardo DiCaprio
December 1, 2011 National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films J. Edgar
December 18, 2011 Satellite Awards Best Actor " Motion Picture Drama Leonardo DiCaprio
January 29, 2012 Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role Leonardo DiCaprio
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role Armie Hammer

Historical accuracy

In an interview on All Things Considered, Yale history professor Beverly Gage, who is writing a biography of Hoover, stated that the film accurately conveys that Hoover came to the FBI as a reformer seeking "to clean it up, to professionalize it", and to introduce scientific methods to its investigation, eventually including such practices as finger-printing and blood-typing. She praises DiCaprio for conveying the tempo of Hoover's speech. However, she notes that the film's central narrative device, in which Hoover dictates his memoirs to FBI agents chosen as writers, is fictional: "He didn't ever have the sort of formal situation that you see in the movie where he was dictating a memoir to a series of young agents, and that that is the official record of the FBI." The historian Aaron J. Stockham of the Waterford School, whose dissertation was on the relationship of the FBI and the US Congress during the Hoover years, wrote on the History News Network of George Mason University, "J. Edgar portrays Hoover as the man who successfully integrated scientific processes into law enforcement investigations.... There is no doubt, from the historical record, that Hoover was instrumental in creating the FBI's scientific reputation." Stockham notes that Hoover probably did not write the FBI's notorious letter to Martin Luther King Jr., saying, "While such a letter was written, Hoover almost certainly delegated it to others within the Bureau."

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