Clint Eastwood is an accomplished story teller, of course. J. Edgar Hoover’s life is a good story, perhaps. Like all stories, it depends on how it is told. This particular version of Hoover’s life skims along as smoothly as J. Edgar’s slick hair. The film is not about the development of the FBI, nor is it a political film about Hoover’s impact on American society, though it gives brief mention of both. The lingering images of the movie are, instead, about J. Edgar and Clyde Tolson, his male companion, number 2 man, and most trusted agent, friend, and confidant. A more appropriate title to the film could be “Mother and Lover”, or “Men and Mothers”—in fact, making up new names for the movie is the most productive exercise coming from the two hours of un relieved narrative.
To surface fish the relationship between a mother and one of the most notorious power holders in American history makes little sense thematically or dramatically. Her homophobia and bigotry are briefly dumped on us without explanation or exploration, in a manner that the director seems to think explains J. Edgar’s life philosophy. Equally, Hoover’s overweening attachment to his mother, again shown only briefly and rather scurrilously, leaves no room for interpretation, but is too simplistic for revelation. Mother speaks, son enlists it, as receptive as a target to a bullet.
In the same manner, Clyde Tolson speaks and J. Edgar listens. Until, that is, Tolson professes his love, and in the following fist fight and floor wrestling plants a smothering kiss on Hoover. The two men stay inseparable but—in the movie, at least—they remain chastely separate, physically. I didn’t count the minutes of film Tolson and Hoover appear together, but the overall impression given by the film, especially the ending, is that Hoover’s accomplishments at the FBI were less important to him than his mother and Tolson. The FBI, itself, gets such a superficial treatment that we are left with a desire to know more—the agency has become such an important element in the fabric of American society—and Hoover’s life and the agency are so inextricably wound together that to show one necessitates a look at the other in more than a spurious manner. The same can be said for his mania about communism. Did it reflect the American public’s concerns, or was it a political construction forced onto the people by a few ideologues? This is a central question of Hoover’s lifelong activities and his effect on society, but is not explored in the movie.
Other things need explaining, primarily Hoover’s insane attitude toward Martin Luther King, Jr., and the animosity between him and the Kennedys. Was Hoover, for instance, an ugly racist, or was he just ridiculously blinded by an irrational fear of communism that cast a red pall over everything that appeared anti-American to the FBI director, no matter how far fetched? And, if he were so paranoid, what kind of damage did he do to civil liberties? Eastwood gives us glimpses of this, but in such a short-handed fashion that such facts are lost immediately in the following footage, like caviar lost overboard in the wake of a juggernaut.
For example, Hoover attacked and deported Emma Goldman for her views on birth control, religion, and free love, as well as her opposition to America’s involvement in WWI. Meyer Lansky had photographs proving Hoover’s homosexuality and held them as a threat to keep the FBI off his back. Journalists who tried to investigate Hoover’s life and sexuality were harassed by the FBI. All in all, Hoover trampled over First Amendment rights consistently, and it is this aspect of his life and power that deserves considerable attention, because it speaks to the contemporary abuse of power, such as former President Bush carried out, showing that this is still a serious threat.
On another front, it has been observed that Kennedy was a womanizer, as have been any number of presidents and other men in power, but what was Hoover’s interest in these inconsequential flings? Was it prurient interest, was he compiling dossiers that he could use to blackmail authority figures as a means of looking after his, and the bureau’s, own interests, in terms of getting funding, or keeping his job, or did he enjoy the power it gave him over the most powerful public figures? How did he treat other presidents? In a Truman speech, he stated that the government was not going to allow the FBI to turn into a Gestapo. Hoover, in his paranoid extreme, even built a file on First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he believed was a subversive! Surely this deserves more than a few seconds in a film about his life? Instead, the movie spends considerable time on the Lindbergh kidnapping, something that captured the attention of the world press, but had no bearing on Hoover’s philosophy or his impact on America. Eastwood throws out some tantalizing bits of Hoover’s life, but the film ends up being only a collection of aspects of a man’s life, not the man’s life.
I understand that Eastwood has chosen not to focus on the FBI in this movie, but the half century J. Edgar Hoover spent building one of the most formidable institutions of surveillance and law enforcement ishis life—more than his mother, and more than Tolson. And the choice of DiCaprio for Hoover is inexplicably odd and bothersome; Hoover looked pugnacious, like a bulldog, flat-faced, short (5ft, 7in), with black, brilliantined, wavy hair. It is like casting Charlie Sheen to play James Cagney. If you want a cardboard-cutout, Hollywood slice of entertainment, then “J. Edgar” is your movie.
“J. Edgar”. 2011. U.S. 137 min. Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Hoover), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson), Judy Dench (Hoover’s mother), Naomi Watts, (Helen Gandy).