Dir. Clint Eastwood. U.S.A. 2011.
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Clint Eastwood makes a commendable effort to try and humanize FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in his film J. Edgar, but it is a losing proposition. Eastwood makes all the right moves, but never really succeeds in eliciting sympathy for an unsympathetic man. Appointed by Calvin Coolidge in 1924, J. Edgar Hoover was head of the FBI for 48 years and was dedicated to law enforcement, but became notorious for his harassment of liberals and intellectuals, and his use of threats and blackmail against political leaders including Presidents and other notable political and social figures. 

As the film opens, Hoover is an old man who wants to make sure that future generations do not think harshly of him and is seen dictating his memoirs to his private secretary Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts). The story is not told in a linear fashion but is episodic in nature, as if it were a “Best of Hoover” compilation. It begins in the 1920's with Hoover's response to eight bombs launched by anarchists directed against prominent individuals in banking and politics. In the ensuing raids, which became known as the Palmer Raids, 10,000 people who had not committed any crime were arrested and many were deported.  

This singular event began Hoover's reputation for being a “Bolshevik fighter”, one that he encouraged and promoted throughout his career, reaching its height in his cooperation with Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee during the anti-Communist crusades of the 1950s. Much of the early part of the film, however, concentrates on Hoover's role in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932 and the subsequent arrest of Gerhard Hauptmann three years after the event. It was here that the FBI developed modern investigative techniques such as the first national fingerprint registry and a forensics laboratory at the bureau which became models for other law enforcement agencies.  

Hoover's role as a crime fighter received a boost with the arrest and conviction of some of the more prominent crime figures of the 1930s including John Dillinger. Everyone knew who the G-Men were and Hoover was not averse to self promotion. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black gives prominence to Hoover's sexuality, though in fact much of it is rumor and speculation. A good part of the film is taken up by Hoover's relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a man with little qualifications who was appointed as his second in command at the bureau. Tolson became his closest and possibly his only friend and close companion during his lifetime, and the film strongly suggests that they were lovers, though it never states it explicitly.

Also prominent in the film is Hoover's relationship with his domineering mother (Judi Dench). Early in the film, his mother tells him that he will become one of the most important men in America and the implication is that he devoted his life to making his mother right, whether or not there were dead bodies strewn along the way. Though some of Hoover's most provocative actions such as his attempt to blackmail Robert Kennedy and his wiretapping and harassment of Martin Luther King are dramatized, his role in COINTELPRO, a covert operation against liberal activists, anti-war groups, and civil rights organizations is not mentioned.

Though any role Hoover may have played in the assassination or cover-up of JFK is speculative, the HSCA discovered in 1979 that the FBI had recorded conversations in 1962 and 1963 between various Mafia leaders and their subordinates in which threats to kill JFK and wishes to see him murdered were expressed. Incredibly, Hoover never reported these threats to the Secret Service. Even more disturbingly, he did not mention them to President Kennedy, nor to Robert Kennedy, who was the Attorney General (and Hoover's boss) at the time.

Though Eastwood is one of my favorite directors, and I give credit to him for his sensitive handling of the relationship between Hoover and Tolson (except for one melodramatic outburst towards the end), the cumulative effect of the film is neither a cohesive or an illuminating portrait of Hoover, nor is it a compelling source of insight or information about him. While there are some good performances, particularly those by Judi Dench and Armie Hammer, I found Leonardo DiCaprio performance as J. Edgar to be wooden, almost as if he was modeling bitterness while auditioning for acting school.

While J. Edgar does show Hoover to be an embittered man who made rigid demands on his staff including spur of the moment firings and embarrassment of employees, it never really takes a stand on his political actions or shows the effects of his bullying and intimidation on the lives of those he viewed as a threat. As a fellow human being, I can relate to Hoover's loneliness and paranoia, but frankly, I have as little interest in Hoover's psychological aberrations as I have in whether Mussolini loved children. What is more important is their impact on the society in which they lived and the legacy they left behind.  


Howard Schumann

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