Humanising Hoover and Thatcher


J. Edgar (M). Director: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench. 137 minutes

First, let's talk about J. Edgar Hoover's jowls. The bulldog visage sported by the first director of America's Federal Bureau of Investigation was somewhat of a trademark. Which makes the casting of the baby-faced Leonardo Di Caprio to portray him in a film about his life seem like an odd choice.

Then again, Di Caprio is a perfectly fine actor, and movie makeup is a veritable artform — one which has been honoured with its own category at the Academy Awards for over 30 years, ever since Christopher Tucker was snubbed despite his superlative work on 1980's The Elephant Man.

Unfortunately the work done by director Eastwood's makeup department is far below the standard set by Tucker and successive exemplars. A case in point: Armie Hammer, who plays Hoover's offsider and would-be life partner Clyde Tolson, appears to be wearing some kind of rubber fright mask.

Worse, you can see the seam where Hoover's patented jowls have been pasted onto Di Caprio's pretty boy cheeks.

This may seem trivial, but it's actually a big problem for Eastwood. From Unforgiven to Gran Torino, his career as filmmaker has been marked by stories of redemption and flawed humanity. He clearly wants to humanise the oft-maligned Hoover.

So although the film focuses on Hoover's achievements as head of the burgeoning Bureau — his investigation into the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's child; successive 'wars' on demonic communists and gangsters — it also dwells on his relationship with his adoring but demanding mother (Dench), and his love for Tolson, which he represses due to fiercely felt societal expectations.

Unfortunately, with the actors' performances impeded by those laughable, immobile facial prosthetics, the task of humanising is nigh impossible.

But the problems with J. Edgar do not begin and end with artificial faces. Like another recent biopic, The Iron Lady, in which an Oscar-baiting Meryl Streep vigorously impersonates Margaret Thatcher, J. Edgar introduces its subject in his later years, as he reflects back on the events of his life.

This can be an effective approach, able to imbue a story with an elegiac, regretful tone, so that even when seen at their worst (Thatcher at her most spittingly imperious; Hoover as a repressed, self-aggrandising bully) the chance of redemption seems always within reach.

But it is also a manipulative and disingenuous tactic. Both films err on the side of sentimentality — and these are not figures to whom sentimentality can be easily attached. The middling response from critics and audiences (both films received 'rotten' scores on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes) suggest a more robust treatment of these notorious figures might have been in order.

Certainly J. Edgar and The Iron Lady appear insipid compared with other recent politically themed 'true stories' such as the Blair/Clinton film The Special Relationship, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, Oliver Stone's W, and Stephen Soderbergh's Che. These films humanised the characters but still dealt vigorously with their politics. They did so without sentimentality, Oscar-baiting or badly applied fake jowls.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, J. Edgar Hoover, Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady



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Existing comments

Tim, thanks for this commentary. I have seen both films and came away feeling a bit uneasy (Streep was brilliant, but...). Your comment about sentimentality and the need for a more robust treatment puts the finger on the problem that I have been pondering.

Frank Golding | 02 February 2012  

I did a search back through Tim's earlier reviews. I found the one on Che Guevara which was published on October 01, 2009. I find it interesting that he freely criticizes films that try to attach sentimentality to Hoover or Thatcher. I would suppose that a "more robust treatment" of these two means they should have been condemned and damned for their manifest inhumanity. Tim made so such comments about Che Guevara. There was no imperative on Soderbergh, the director of Che, to show Guevara to be the brutal murder that he was. Then again, Tim seems to have a romantic view about Marxism and its revolutionary heroes. Members of my family from Vietnam could give him a different perspective on the matter.

Nguyen Duy | 02 February 2012  

Well done Tim! After seeing both films, I was disappointed. They were a waste of time, trying to make them look "nice" despite all the 'bad' things these people did.
I'm sure thatcher belived in what she was doing, but was twisted somewhere in her reasoning. This didn't really come out at all! I always wanted to know why did the Brits kept on voting for her. I still don't know.

Nathalie | 03 February 2012  

The audience gets what they want/deserve unfortunately. Frost / Nixon grossed $27 million at box office, Che $40 million and W. $25 million, while The Iron Lady grossed more than all of that combined at $114 million. Production companies will continue to mix politics in with made up sentimental elements because otherwise their projects will fail.

Anthony | 17 January 2013  

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