Film Review: J. Edgar

In J. Edgar, Leonardo Di Caprio, under Clint Eastwood’s direction, gives a thoroughly credible performance as FBI Chief, J. Edgar Hoover. Di Caprio portrays him as the paranoid, vindictive, delusional, hypocritical (he refers to Senator McCarthy as an opportunist) and egotistical man that he was; certainly not high on the list of guys you’d want your daughter to marry.

Arnie Hammer as Hoover’s paramour, Clyde Tolson, Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, his long-serving secretary and Judi Dench as his overly attentive mother (“You will restore our family to greatness”) all turn in fine performances. Hoover is, in fact, shown as a mama’s boy who went in for crime-busting to please the law-and-order obsessed lady.

Too much is devoted to exploring Hoover’s sexuality, though screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who is gay, probably felt it necessary. To quote Black, “it was a thing you couldn’t discuss even in the privacy of your own home and even with someone you might have feelings for, because it was still a love that did not speak its name.” Black, surprisingly, has Hoover enrage Tolson by confessing he once shared a romantic liaison with Dorothy Lamour.

This gives one some idea how petty he was. Hoover’s ambitions knew no bounds; when shut out of the Lindberg kidnapping investigation by the New Jersey State Police, he had Congress pass a law making kidnapping a federal instead of a state crime so the FBI, could horn in.

Surprisingly, Black makes no mention of Hoover’s greatest ambition to make the FBI a world-wide intelligence organization, which the CIA eventually became. Hoover had his vast army of agents pursue whatever grudges: criminal, political, sexual or personal, that he held – and he held plenty of them. He kept tabs on the extra-curricular activities of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Eleanor Roosevelt.  In Eleanor Roosevelt’s case that included spying on her trysts with lovers of both sexes. No-one in the FBI was allowed to be more popular than Eddie baby. That meant destroying the career of agent, Melvin Purvis who had gunned down John Dillinger.

Too much attention is devoted to his relationships with Tolson, Miss Gandy and his mother in this 135-minute movie, which fails to pursue more intriguing matters – such as, Hoover’s refusal to pursue organized crime as opposed to nickel-and-dime bank robbers. Rumour has it the mob had photographs of Hoover in drag and in a compromising position with Clyde Tolson who he made his number two man in the FBI.

Nor did the movie show his relentless persecution of homosexuals, eventually forcing them out of the closet as an act of retaliation. One psychiatrist would later say, “They should call that the J. Edgar Hoover Syndrome – persecuting the very thing he was.”

When Richard Nixon was elected it was the proverbial and possibly the literal death knell for Hoover. Nixon, though heterosexual, was very similar; mean, ambitious and unscrupulous (no kidding). Nixon wanted possession of Hoover’s files and the only way to get them would be to kill him. It isn’t mentioned that Hoover wanted to be Director for life, a life many would like to see end ASAP. It is only slightly implied that his doctor injected him with chemicals that wouldn’t exactly prolong it. Rumour has it that a life shortening pill, which looked like an aspirin tablet, was put in amongst them.

The most significant aspect of Hoover’s career wasn’t mentioned. He became head of the FBI in 1924, a year after the Teapot Dome Scandal in which some senior members of the Harding administration were implicated. In 1973, a year after his death, the Watergate Scandal broke out, but in the intermediate 48 years in which he reigned as the Bureau’s boss, there were no major scandals affecting the presidency.

One may wonder if the seven presidents he served under and their administrative staffs were not like Nixon’s thugs at all; that they were all goody-goodies who wouldn’t stoop to an illegal act.  Or, perhaps – just perhaps – once or twice they did and J. Edgar was on hand to contain the mess, conditional on getting the laws passed and the budgets he wanted – take your pick.

One comforting thought is that it’s highly unlikely in a sane society that anyone would be as sick as J. Edgar Hoover, but if there was such a person, he would receive help, and as the movie makes clear, he surely needed it.

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