by George Sax
What's with that gin G-man?
It’s surely one of recent American history’s most piquant, neatly ironic jokes. J. Edgar Hoover, crime buster supreme, scourge of the Red Menace, and virtual founder of our national police force, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has become over the last 40 years the butt of snickers and dirty jokes about his reputed private life. The voyeuristic, rigidly moralist Hoover spent decades and uncounted millions in dollars and man-hours invasively monitoring and secretly archiving not just the political views and activities of obscure Americans and such luminaries as Charles Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King Jr., and even President John F. Kennedy, but also the most intimate details of their lives.
Hoover zealously guarded and occasionally leaked information about the love lives of the people his agents tracked, trailed and wire tapped. In one of the best scenes in Clint Eastwood’s biopic J. Edgar, Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) quietly makes clear to his nominal boss, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), that he has audio records and other evidence of the sexual peccadillos of the AG’s brother, the president. Of course, Hoover insinuates, these need not ever be divulged if he receives authorization to bug the hotel rooms of King, a prime villain in Hoover’s rabidly bigoted mind. It’s nicely played and directed.
But his menacing influence was based on far more than his sex files. Hoover was both a product of and a major contributor to some of the ugliest moments in the last century of American history. His achievements, including his 48-year tenure at the bureau, are a particular kind of American success story, and a very disturbing one. He was feared and reviled during his life, but posthumously he has become the subject of rumors and accusations about the nature of his cozy relationship to his assistant, Clyde Tolson; there are smirky reports of transvestite tendencies and very friendly relations with another alleged closet queen, New York’s Cardinal Spellman. It’s sort of like history’s horselaugh.
Whatever the truth (most of it is probably irretrievable now), it seems incontrovertible that Hoover was one nasty, kinked-up piece of work, although J. Edgar doesn’t want to leave it at that. There’s an effort at understanding and even empathy at work here. Eastwood and his film have struggled to encompass both the public symbol so available to both the right and left for so long and the twisted, squirrelly, mother-ridden neurotic, taking care not to absolve its subject of his multitude of misdeeds. Eastwood and his scenarist Dustin Lance Black (Milk) take it as a given that Hoover was a repressed homosexual who found perhaps his only intimate peace with Tolson (Armie Hammer), and this is a reasonable position. It’s hard to deny the juice in this story of a severely split persona and high-maintenance hypocrisy. It’s also hard—at least it was for me—to feel the empathy, to experience this version of Hoover’s humanity.
J. Edgar starts out promisingly, with its protagonist a young low-level functionary in A. Mitchell Palmer’s Justice Department in Washington just after the First World War. Young Hoover becomes an increasingly important part of the infamous Palmer Raids against leftist aliens and other radicals. When Palmer’s political career is finally derailed by enforcement tactics even establishment figures find excessive, Hoover not only survives but is elevated to the leadership of the newly created bureau.
These scenes have pace, punch, and wit, but they may leave an erroneous impression of the period and Hoover’s role. The film stresses the radical terror that the feds were reacting to, including a bomb detonated outside Palmer’s front door, but the salient thrust by Washington’s anti-subversive programs was against all manner of leftists and labor organizations across the country. It was a largely successful attempt to suppress legitimate political expression and organizing, a national spasm of hatred and curtailment of liberties. It would be replicated a generation later after the Second World War, and once more Hoover and the bureau would be centrally involved. Curiously, Eastwood and Black all but completely ignore the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s. They do deal with the FBI’s secret campaign to discredit and damage Reverend King and the civil rights movement, but J. Edgar underplays the depth and breadth of Hoover’s enmity toward both. The covert campaign was not just an angry response by the director to the complaints by King and other figures in the movements that the FBI was ineffective or lax in investigating and prosecuting dangerous segregationist zealots, as J. Edgar suggests. Hoover had a pathological dislike of King and he harbored a deep-dyed racist perception of black men as ungovernably licentious.
DiCaprio has certainly worked to convey an impression of this strange yet somehow American figure, and he comes closer than I expected to creating a persuasive character. His scenes with his severe yet devoted mother (Judi Dench) evoke emotional truth. But he evidently had some trouble sustaining his characterization; it slips away from him periodically, probably because the film has an inconsistent quality. Trying to meld the widely recognized public Hoover with the necessarily somewhat speculative private man hasn’t resulted in a transcendent conception. Eventually, the film has to resort to florid melodrama and a somewhat mawkish attempt at pathos.
It’s not that J. Edgar never makes its point—Eastwood is too careful and intelligent for that. It’s a question of not making it as effectively as it might have.
Watch the trailer for J. Edgar
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