nthposition online magazine

Ruling us

by Douglas Messerli

[ filmreviews ]

You have to admire Eastwood's Hoover biopic if for no other reasons than it has a remarkably capable cast, authentic sets and costumes, and numerous well-edited and composed scenes. Eastwood is an intelligent and sensitive director of the old Hollywood school, who has presented us in this work with a thoughtful and strangely touching piece about one of the most powerful, irascible, and difficult men in American politics - although I am sure Hoover thought himself above and apart from the political scene; he was in fact one of the most political animals ever, and that ability is the reason behind his long survival through the governing of eight presidents, although both Truman and Kennedy wanted to fire him, but, fearful of the repercussions, did not act. Hoover primarily created the modern FBI, developed its sophisticated scientific investigation techniques, and promoted the organization to the American public through films, comic books, and other media.

Eastwood steps carefully in revealing the less heroic side of this figure by allowing his Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio in, perhaps, the best role of career to date) to describe himself, or, to put it another way, to mythologize his concerns and actions through a long series of meetings with writers of a would-be FBI memoir. For anyone who knows about the FBI Director's activities over the years, it is fascinating, but also irritating, to watch and hear the chest-beating braggart strut his stuff. And the creaky plot structure that this device creates fills in a selective history, without moving the story forward.

Of course, by film's end, with Tolson's summary of the lies Hoover has promoted, we recognize that there is a logic to this structure, but with the focus on Hoover's small selection of events, Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black are left with a highly inconclusive series of occasions that can hardly convey the scope of Hoover's vast pall over the whole of the American scene.

The film begins with the 1919 and 1920 so called "Palmer Raids," headed by Hoover after mail-bomb attacks on several notable figures. The raids themselves rounded up few anarchists, but the result of these raids, and the fears raised by the FBI and other organizations, led to larger attacks against socialists, communists, and other groups whose principles did not accord with Hoover's and others' version of democracy. As the former head of The Enemy Aliens Registration Section, Hoover manipulated the system to have numerous figures such as Emma Goldman (the example used in the film) deported. Yet Hoover's fury was far more extensive than the one example J. Edgar names, for he later was behind the expulsion of notable figures such as Charlie Chapin and numerous others, as well as influencing the little-discussed Mexican repatriation, ordered by Presidents Hoover in 1929 and Roosevelt in 1939, resulting in the return to Mexico of 35,000 American citizens who were originally born in that country. Indeed, J. Edgar, had Eastwood desired, could have had far greater resonance to the present than it does, had he simply chosen other examples as well. As the film quotes one agent, Stokes, "The crimes we are investigating aren't crimes, they are ideas." And one might argue that throughout his life Hoover's actions were based more upon what he saw as dangerous ideas as opposed to actual threats, truly terrorist acts.

The second series of "selective" memories upon which the film focuses are the infamous FBI attacks upon robbers and gangsters such as John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and other criminal figures of the 1930s. By this time Hoover had developed a group of effective agents to serve him, but jealous of the attention his agents, such as Melvin Purvis (who killed Dillinger) received, Hoover lashed out against the brightest of his own men, demoting or firing them. This almost maniacal demand for attention drove Hoover to several of his most ridiculous actions, and is revelatory of his desperation for power and popular approval. Certainly Eastwood's movie hints at this, but the few instances upon which it focuses make such conclusions fuzzy as opposed to a story that might more thoroughly reveal Hoover's contradictions.

Finally, the film gets terribly bogged down in the story of the Bruno Hauptmann kidnapping of the one year old son of American flying hero Charles Lindbergh. Hoover - and the film - detail the investigation quite thoroughly, demonstrating how Hoover's forensic developments led, finally, to Hauptmann's conviction and death. To me this focus on one major event, delimits so much else that the film might have revealed about Hoover and almost exonerates him in his leadership. What the film does not precisely depict is that even the governor of New Jersey doubted Hauptmann's guilt, and years later a large number of FBI files and other material were discovered in the governor's records that suggest some of the evidence was planted by FBI agents, bringing into to question several aspects of Hauptmann's guilt.

In short, by employing the device of Hoover's dictated memories, the film jumps and skips over some of the most egregious issues of Hoover's career. While we do see him developing private files, one containing a letter in which Eleanor Roosevelt addresses a lesbian lover, another containing information on a sexual encounter with a foreign agent by John F Kennedy, and a tape of an illicit sexual encounter with a woman by Martin Luther King, these are sometimes so incidentally mentioned that anyone not immersed in the period may not comprehend their significance. Hoover's wiretapping, his extensive eavesdropping on thousands of American celebrities, and his involvement in the destruction of hundreds of lives of individuals whose only crime was in questioning or disagreeing with his strong moralist and political stances - which included a kind of xenophobic view of the world, an abhorrence of all things sexual (particularly involving homosexuality), and a patriotism that might have made even Thomas Jefferson seem like a "commie." It seems almost comical that, had he not died, Hoover might have finally met his match in the equally righteous, but law-breaking Richard Nixon.

What the film does quite brilliantly reveal is all that is most private and, within the context of the story writing, most fictional. We cannot know precisely what Hoover's relationship was with his mother, but J. Edgar presents us with a claustrophobic home-life wherein it is hard to imagine how Hoover was not smothered to death in love. Judi Dench brilliantly portrays a woman obviously doting on a young man whom she had molded through speaking lessons, moral homilies, and motherly affection. The film carefully tiptoes around the claims of Hoover's cross-dressing tendencies by showing him, upon his mother's death, in a fetishlike mania, donning her beads and dress.

Upon his admission that he cannot bear to dance with women, she repeats the story of a childhood acquaintance who, dressing as a woman, was mocked by neighbor's through his nickname "Daffy" (for daffodil). Her summary comment is one of the most horrific statements of the film: "I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son." After which, she puts her arms around him in an attempt to teach him how to dance.

Many of the critics whom I read seemed to suggest that Eastwood and Black barely touched upon the momentous hypocrisy of Hoover's life, his own, possibly homosexual, relationship with his assistant, Clyde Tolson. Yet I see this as, perhaps, the central focus of this work, or, at least, its most well-developed subject. From the moment he first meets Tolson (played by the immensely talented Armie Hammer [1]), Hoover goes into heat, actually breaking out into a sweat when he interviews Tolson for a possible FBI job. The man is, at least in the terms that Hoover has laid out - total commitment to the organization, complete sobriety, and utter faith in him and the organization - unqualified for the position. Yet not only does Hoover hire him, but within a few months, makes him second in charge. For the next 45 years the two dined with each other for lunch and dinner and traveled together on vacations where the two shared bedrooms or adjoining suites. They worked every day at the office side by side. The film suggests that, at least on a few occasions, they kissed; that Tolson was furious over Hoover's affair with Dorothy Lamour and outraged at Hoover's suggestion that he might marry. Tolson, apparently, chose Hoover's suits and ties and coached him the niceties of societal behavior. Once he met Tolson, although he had outlawed liquor for all FBI employees, Hoover began increasingly to drink. Together the two gambled, went to the theater, and attended late-night clubs. Does that mean that the two were lovers?

Despite the long-time insistence of Washington DC gays and political insiders (I lived in that city for 16 years during his tenure, and regularly was assured of Hoover's homosexuality) and the rumors that he had been seen at gay orgies in full drag with a bevy of blond-haired boys, I would side with the moderate views of this film. I suppose the question is whether a deep male camaraderie without sex might still be described as a homosexual relationship. There are plenty of couples, homosexual or heterosexual, I would argue, who seldom have sex. I certainly cannot imagine a situation such as the one between these two men as not being understood as a kind of marriage, one of the dictionary definitions being "an intimate or close union." Indeed, more than anything else, it is apparent, Hoover craved love, and Tolson daily offered it up.

Hoover's grabs power, which ultimately corrupted him and led him to hypocritical actions that are almost incomprehensible, grew evidently out of that need to be loved. Power, as every backyard bully and world leader comes to comprehend, means the ability to influence and control others, particularly potential enemies. As Hoover himself said, "No one freely shares power in Washington, DC." Year after year, like a king overseeing the election of new presidents, Hoover stood on the balcony of his FBI office, waving at the inaugural presidential parades. He had power, but in the process lost his sense of the very values that he imagined he was so carefully protecting. He, indeed, had become a kind of ruler, not a democrat.

 

1 One of the ironies of the film is that Armie Hammer's grandfather, Armand, was a long-time target of Hoover, who questioned Hammer's close ties with the Soviet Union. [Back]