When J. Edgar was being sold to the public back in 2011, the focus was on star Leonardo DiCaprio, which makes the most sense as he’s biggest star and plays the title character.
To recap (in case you’re not hip to a five-year-old movie), J.Edgar tells the story of J. Edgar Hoover, the man who quickly rose up the ranks of the nascent FBI to lead the agency through much of his adult life. He maintained that hold on power, as we’re shown in the movie, through a mix of iron will to protect the country, a bit of self-aggrandizement and a massive intelligence structure that allowed him to spy on everyone and essentially blackmail anyone who crossed him with the secrets he’d accumulated. Through all this he was helped by his loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
The trailer for the movie’s release was pretty intent on selling this as a personal history lesson that takes us inside the mind of one of the 20th century’s most interesting and polarizing figures. And it delivers on that promise…at least to the same limited extent most biopics do. The marketing doesn’t reveal this, but much of the movie’s story is presented as flashback as we follow Hoover dictating his memoirs to a young agent, the end of his tenure at the FBI coming nearer and nearer.
Another important element is only slightly hinted at in the marketing, and that’s the relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Neither was openly gay, something that would have ended both of their careers. But they nonetheless were extremely close and spent much of their free time together, remaining bachelors throughout the years. There are a couple scenes where they have what might be referred to as a “lover’s spat” though there’s no inclination here that they ever were such. When one slights or wrongs the other, though, there’s that same sort of tension that’s played out.
It’s unclear to me why that wouldn’t take more of a central role in the marketing, especially considering it’s such a well-known part of Hoover’s long term cultural reputation. There’s a scene involving Hoover actually putting on his dead mother’s dress, something that at least used to be the subject of plenty of junior high jokes. There’s no attempt to trade on that innuendo, which has never really been substantiated, and I can’t tell if that’s an oversight in the marketing or if the studio simply felt like this wasn’t the tack it wanted to take.
Overall the marketing didn’t missell J. Edgar. It’s a bit stodgy and stuffy and drags in a few places, but it’s true to the campaign that sold it.