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‘J. Edgar’

L – limited adult audience, problematic content


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Touchy themes mar treatment of complex FBI leader

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 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.




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PBS to broadcast series by Father Barron

Television viewers across the country will get a glimpse into the rich history, culture and tenets of the Catholic faith this fall when 90 public television stations across the country air episodes of a series called “Catholicism” that was developed by a Chicago priest.

The series is hosted by Father Robert Barron, who runs the Chicago-based Word on Fire ministry. It includes 10, hour-long DVDs, leader and group study guides and a 300-page stand-alone book of the same title. Episodes also will be broadcast on the Eternal Word Television Network.

Father Barron’s goal was to show the history and treasures of the Catholic Church. The series was filmed in high-definition and spans more than 50 locations in 15 countries.

The global media ministry Word on Fire – which aims to “educate and engage the culture” – pitched all 10 episodes of “Catholicism” to PBS, but the network opted to run four shows: The Revelation, God becomes man; The Mystery of God; Mary, Mother of God; and Peter and Paul as missionaries. (Check local listings.)

No money was exchanged under the agreement, Father Barron said, and Word on Fire will promote the full DVD set and program at the end of each episode.

Father Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a professor of faith and culture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, said he was surprised PBS agreed to air “Catholicism.”

“I thought that maybe they would think it was too Catholic. They loved it right away,” he said. The goal of “Catholicism” has always been to evangelize the culture, and media seemed the best vehicle to accomplish that, he added.

The priest also wants to reach people outside the Church, such as fallen-away Catholics, secularists, non-Catholics and disinterested Catholics. “That’s why I love that PBS is broadcasting it,” he said.

The program has a good chance of reaching people who are not part of the Church because it is a high-quality series done in an inviting way, said Eileen Daily, assistant professor at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago. “One of the biggest issues with evangelization is getting people not to put up a wall before your message gets to them,” said Daily, whose study includes using art for religious education.

People will be more open to the message in “Catholicism” because it looks like the rest of the shows they are used to seeing on television, she said. The program airing on PBS also lends it credibility, she said, noting that the network isn’t going to “accept something that is proselytizing.”

Father Barron said the program reveals a broad view of the Church including its growing presence in Africa and Kolkata, India.

“There is nothing out there like this that gives you the global, visual, culture, history and theological side of the Church,” he added. “I hate the reduction of Catholicism to the sexual abuse scandal. God knows we have problems that have to be dealt with,” Father Barron said, but “there is so much more to Catholicism than our current struggles.”

More information about the series is available at and

(Article by Joyce Duriga, Catholic News Service)