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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

J. Edgar

By
John Mulderig
Source: Catholic News Service

Over a career that began during World War I and endured almost until the era of Watergate, famed founding director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) battled communists, gangsters, Nazi spies, the Kennedys, the civil rights movement and (albeit reluctantly) the Mafia.

That's a lot of time and a lot of conflict for one movie, which is perhaps why "J. Edgar" (Warner Bros.)—Clint Eastwood's biographical drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the G-man many love to hate—registers, ultimately, as polished but taxing. All the more so since an attempt to reconstruct Hoover's enigmatic personal life, a subject of much gossip then and considerable controversy now, is thrown into the mix as well.

As scripted by Dustin Lance Black, the film informatively chronicles Hoover's rise from obscure bureaucrat to power-besotted keeper of the nation's secrets.

Yet its exploration of the three main relationships in Hoover's life—with his domineering mother, Annie (Judi Dench), his girlfriend-turned-secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and his No. 2 at the bureau, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer)—feels sensationalized at times. A case in point: a fistfight between Hoover and Tolson that consummates in a kiss.

Let it be noted, however that said stolen smooch—more or less exacted by Tolson from a surprised, if not necessarily unwilling, Hoover—is the furthest extent of physical intimacy between the two men portrayed on screen.

There's certainly a lot of pent-up tension between them; the dust-up, for instance, results from Tolson's jealous rage over Hoover's romance with Hollywood glamour girl Hedy Lamarr. And there's also the occasional, ambiguous pat on the hand. But whether their well-documented daily companionship over several decades extended into the bedroom is left up to viewers to decide.

Given that Black also penned 2008's "Milk," it may not be unfair to ask whether this aspect of a historical figure's life is being exploited to advance a contemporary political agenda. Hoover's self-justifying rhetoric in defense of his crime-fighting methods, for instance, does invite reflection on the current debate about the balance between national security and individual liberty. But the idea that his (apparently) conflicted sexuality can serve as a weapon in today's culture wars seems strained.

As depicted here, Hoover is too idiosyncratic, and decidedly too unsympathetic, to be co-opted as an icon of gay victimization—authentic or otherwise.

Steely mom Annie voices a horrifying preference for a dead son over one exposed as a homosexual, and Tolson frequently plays the role of Hoover's conscience on issues of FBI policy. Yet there's no suggestion that if Annie—and society at large—would just have lightened up, Tolson and Hoover could somehow have walked hand in hand into a lavender sunset and found peace together.

Questions of advocacy aside, "J. Edgar" includes material calculated to make it uncomfortable viewing even for mature audience members. The gothic nature of Hoover's filial situation, for instance, reaches a climax in a scene, set after Annie's death, that—mildly at least—evokes Anthony Perkins' interaction with his memorable screen mom in that Victorian fixer-upper above the Bates Motel.

The film contains brief intense but bloodless violence, a scene of semi-graphic adultery, homosexual and transvestite themes, a same-sex kiss, at least one use of profanity and a couple of rough terms. The Catholic News Service classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

*****
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.



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Jacopone da Todi: Jacomo, or James, was born a noble member of the Benedetti family in the northern Italian city of Todi. He became a successful lawyer and married a pious, generous lady named Vanna. 
<p>His young wife took it upon herself to do penance for the worldly excesses of her husband. One day Vanna, at the insistence of Jacomo, attended a public tournament. She was sitting in the stands with the other noble ladies when the stands collapsed. Vanna was killed. Her shaken husband was even more disturbed when he realized that the penitential girdle she wore was for his sinfulness. On the spot, he vowed to radically change his life. </p><p>He divided his possessions among the poor and entered the Secular Franciscan Order (once known as the Third Order). Often dressed in penitential rags, he was mocked as a fool and called Jacopone, or "Crazy Jim," by his former associates. The name became dear to him. </p><p>After 10 years of such humiliation, Jacopone asked to be a member of the Order of Friars Minor(First Order). Because of his reputation, his request was initially refused. He composed a beautiful poem on the vanities of the world, an act that eventually led to his admission into the Order in 1278. He continued to lead a life of strict penance, declining to be ordained a priest. Meanwhile he was writing popular hymns in the vernacular. </p><p>Jacopone suddenly found himself a leader in a disturbing religious movement among the Franciscans. The Spirituals, as they were called, wanted a return to the strict poverty of Francis. They had on their side two cardinals of the Church and Pope Celestine V. These two cardinals, though, opposed Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII. At the age of 68, Jacopone was excommunicated and imprisoned. Although he acknowledged his mistake, Jacopone was not absolved and released until Benedict XI became pope five years later. He had accepted his imprisonment as penance. He spent the final three years of his life more spiritual than ever, weeping "because Love is not loved." During this time he wrote the famous Latin hymn, <i>Stabat Mater</i>. </p><p>On Christmas Eve in 1306 Jacopone felt that his end was near. He was in a convent of the Poor Clares with his friend, Blessed John of La Verna. Like Francis, Jacopone welcomed "Sister Death" with one of his favorite songs. It is said that he finished the song and died as the priest intoned the Gloria from the midnight Mass at Christmas. From the time of his death, Brother Jacopone has been venerated as a saint.</p> American Catholic Blog By immersing our lives in the rhythm of the season, charity can flood our souls and fill us with the happiness for which we were created. We awake Christmas morning prepared to celebrate the birth of our Savior not as a memory but as a profound experience of God’s redemptive love.

 
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