Clint Eastwood is a brilliant filmmaker. We know this. Just take a look at Million Dollar Baby (2004) or his World War II films Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006). I had to remind myself of this fact throughout J. Edgar (2011).
Like Invictus (2009), this is a slow-paced film. Eastwood is not in a hurry to get you somewhere. But that’s part of Eastwood’s storytelling—getting you there—the journey. This slow-paced storytelling makes you pay attention to the camera angles, the shades of light, the seemingly random inclusions in the camera shot, and so on. We are hanging on through it all for the good parts.
As Eastwood weaves this tale through the shadows of Hoover’s complex life visually, I expected a juicy political drama. That’s what I was waiting for. Instead I got a tale about relationships. A somewhat unexpected tale.
From the beginning of the film, Eastwood depicts an almost co-dependent relationship between Edgar (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his mother (Judi Dench). She commissions him to, “Raise our family to greatness.” Edgar takes this commission seriously as he rises to head the newly founded Federal Bureau of Investigation and refuses to step down. Despite his success, he lives with his mother, goes to the theater with his mother, and dines with his mother. As Edgar rises to elite status in Washington, his mother is there each step along the way. He depends heavily on her.
Edgar does make an effort to be in a relationship with a woman. His mother urges that he find a good woman to settle down with. During a date with the blonde Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), where Edgar takes her to the Library of Congress and explains the system they put into place to find books, he unexpectedly proposes to her. She politely declines. The two, however, develop a professional relationship, with Helen becoming Edgar’s life-long administrative assistant who is faithful to him even to the end. She somehow knows he will not change, and yet knows him so well she can predict his next moves.
The relationship that is most interesting in this film is the “broke-back” one between Edgar and Clyde Tolson (brilliantly played by Armie Hammer). What at first appears to be an awkward start to a bromance leads into an awkward romance. While this is the least dysfunctional relationship Edgar has, it’s a relationship his mother does not approve of. While she is fine with the two men being friends, she is not fine with them being “daffodils.” She tells Edgar, “I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.” His relationship with Clyde works in large part due to the effort that Clyde puts into it. He willingly accepts being Edgar’s right-hand man through his years at the FBI without any promotion. He, too, is loyal to Edgar, even when Edgar is not. Though there is only one on-screen kiss between the two, the screen swells with the affection felt between the two men.
The relationship between Edgar and Clyde is clearly obstructed by his mother. When his mother dies, Edgar is torn up emotionally. In an effort to cope, Edgar puts his mother’s clothes on. As he looks at himself in her mirror, places her rosary around his neck, he remembers her words to him, “Have faith. Stay strong.” He then violently rips the rosary off of his neck and the beads fall to the floor. Edgar himself falls to the floor and breaks down in tears uncertain, scared, and lost.
At one point in the film, Edgar screams out, “Do I kill everything I love?” While Edgar struggles to love others, I have to ponder, does Edgar love himself? Right smack in the center of the Levitical code we are told, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18, Common English Bible). This mandate to love others as we love ourselves (the basis for which we find the Golden Rule) repeats itself throughout the Bible. Without a love for self (in the non-egotistical way), can we truly love others? Does Edgar’s love for others reflect his love for himself? A better question to scream out might have been, “Why don’t I love?”
If anything this film should challenge us to look at our relationships, challenge our self-respect and how that affects our following through of the mandate to love.