The Secrets, Lies and Elisions of J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the FBI Director inventively avoids the massive damage he inflicted.

Michael Atkinson December 1, 2011

J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant Clyde Tolson relax on a California beach, circa 1939. (Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library)

Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is all you’d expect and all that is adver­tised, plus a dash of fake moviehouse but­ter. That is, it’s a large, self-impor­tant, inci­dent-by-inci­dent biopic crammed with lux­u­ri­ant peri­od detail, laden with old-age make-up and pow­ered by metic­u­lous but risk­less acting. 

Dustin Lance Black's screenplay regards Hoover's self-regarding life as a kind of melodrama, predominated by moments of personal betrayal and resolve, mostly one-on-one in dimly-lit rooms.

It has always behooved us to be cyn­i­cal about Hollywood’s re-pre­sen­ta­tion of his­to­ry, from the odi­ous Paul Muni hits of the 30s to last year’s The King’s Speech, Sec­re­tari­at, Casi­no Jack, and The Social Net­work. But biopics have a larg­er dilem­ma than fideli­ty – as in, when is a life a sto­ry, and not mere­ly a litany of notable events? J. Edgar Hoover him­self was no slouch in the Remark­able Men with Secrets sweep­stakes, but Eastwood’s movie is itself so aller­gic to scan­dal and impro­pri­ety that it feels, in many ways, like a movie Hoover might have made about himself.

Which is, in fact, the film’s grad­u­al­ly accret­ing con­ceit – that the aging Hoover (Leonar­do DiCaprio), while dic­tat­ing his life’s sto­ry to a series of eager young FBI clerks, is far from a reli­able wit­ness, and the tales he tells, both hero­ic and not-so-much, are seen through the rose-col­ored gog­gles of a pow­er-mad fantasizer. 

This is not the film’s only shad­ow­ing of Orson Welles’s Cit­i­zen Kane, which was noth­ing if not one huge dog­fight of sub­jec­tive per­spec­tives; Hoover’s phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal arrival at man­darin emi­nence and lone­some­ness is etched here in very Welle­sian terms. We get Hoover from young, moth­er-impact­ed whelp to weath­ered Capi­tol Hill dem­a­gogue, leap­ing back and forth through most of the 20th cen­tu­ry, and dal­ly­ing over Hoover’s biggest cru­cibles: the Lind­bergh kid­nap­ping, the anti-gang­ster cam­paigns, the decades-long close friend­ship (and prob­a­ble romance) with tro­phy-agent Clyde Tol­son (Armie Ham­mer), the death of his beloved Mom (a typ­i­cal­ly Denchi­an Judi Dench), the cre­ation of his secret files.” The inter­sec­tion with his­to­ry is rich enough to incite smart-phone vis­its to Wikipedia right there in the theater. 

Still, the gist of Dustin Lance Black’s screen­play regards Hoover’s self-regard­ing life as a kind of melo­dra­ma, pre­dom­i­nat­ed by moments of per­son­al betray­al and resolve, most­ly one-on-one in dim­ly-lit rooms. Hoover was (very like­ly) gay, and so is his biopic. Far from a movie that tack­les the man’s polit­i­cal and crim­i­nal malfea­sance, it’s a Dou­glas Sirk-like hand-wringer, in which Hoover could’ve been played by Lana Turn­er in a suit.

Is this the way Hoover saw him­self? Black and East­wood are hap­py to sug­gest so, and it’s not an unin­ven­tive way to come at this famous­ly secre­tive fig­ure. Cer­tain­ly, Hoover’s hid­den sex­u­al­i­ty and the ways in which its repres­sion explod­ed out­ward toward var­i­ous Oth­ers infil­trat­ing” Amer­i­can soci­ety is rich mate­r­i­al. If only the film­mak­ers had more of it to work with – almost by def­i­n­i­tion, infor­ma­tion about Hoover’s per­son­al life was well-guard­ed and remains sparse. 

Even so, it’s not the whole sto­ry. You make a big, sober, defin­i­tive film about Hoover, and you may inher­it the respon­si­bil­i­ty to pri­or­i­tize the mas­sive dam­age he inflict­ed on the Amer­i­can grain. Cer­tain­ly that’s what Lar­ry Cohen did in his far supe­ri­or, far pulpi­er 1977 movie The Pri­vate Files of J. Edgar Hoover. Inter­est­ed most­ly in Hoover’s celebri­ty sur­veil­lance, East­wood et al. bare­ly men­tion COIN­TEL­PRO, and com­plete­ly elide the assas­si­na­tions of Fred Hamp­ton and many oth­er Black Pan­ther Par­ty mem­bers, the devel­op­ment of the vio­lent pro­to-ter­ror­ist Secret Army Orga­ni­za­tion, the per­va­sive incite­ment of gang vio­lence, and the vast array of life-ruin­ing black-op schemes inflict­ed on tens of thou­sands of citizens. 

The FBI’s reac­tion to the Civ­il Rights era protests – in actu­al­i­ty, every type of Con­sti­tu­tion-des­e­crat­ing espi­onage imag­in­able direct­ed at vir­tu­al­ly every­one who raised a left-of-Gold­wa­ter voice – is reduced to Hoover’s con­ser­v­a­tive-para­noid rants. There’s a dan­ger here, for a view­er unfa­mil­iar with his­to­ry, to take Hoover as sim­ply a black­mail­ing big mouth, and not a man whose opin­ions were actu­al­ly real­ized by bloody fed­er­al mis­deed, over and over again.

Should we accept psy­chol­o­gy over his­to­ry? If you decide so, J. Edgar is still iron­i­cal­ly reveal­ing – Hoover’s ran­corous hatred of rad­i­cals, homo­sex­u­als and minori­ties is not far at all from Har­ry Callahan’s. Released in 1971, five months before Hoover’s death, Dirty Har­ry has been read over the years as some­thing like the quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Hoover­ian movie, lux­u­ri­at­ing in straight-white-man rage unmit­i­gat­ed by the com­ic bathos of, say, Archie Bunker. 

Harry’s sex­ist-racist per­son­al­i­ty was a broad joke eas­i­ly stom­ached only in the Nixon era, thanks in part to the blow­back gen­er­at­ed by the annoy­ing per­sis­tence of civ­il rights activism. East­wood has been fit­ful­ly shrug­ging off that stig­ma ever since, and with J. Edgar he’s gone so far in that direc­tion that in a way he’s come back around to where he began. We aren’t sup­posed to agree with Hoover’s pre-neo-con fear and loathing, but we are sup­posed to feel pity for the man, once he refash­ioned the nation into a covert police state and then found him­self alone and des­o­late at its center.

Eastwood’s movie is, to a degree, res­cued by its late-in-the-game veil-drop­ping, in which Hammer’s Tol­son (under a ridicu­lous latex hel­met of elder­li­ness) con­fronts Hoover with his own com­ic-book fab­ri­ca­tions. As with the recent doc­u­men­tary The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Nicholae Ceaus­es­cu, the Hoover life we get is a stream of high-fly­ing pro­pa­gan­da-cum-pub­lic­i­ty – which is to say, myth­ic self-inven­tion, anoth­er proud sta­ple of gay culture. 

But how­ev­er much Hol­ly­wood may have poi­soned the well of Hoover’s world­view, with both Cagneyesque for­mu­la and flag-wav­ing sim­plic­i­ty, the cost of the tox­ic plume was paid by too many others.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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