Making a molehill out of a mountain

Clint Eastwood’s biopic of J Edgar Hoover is more about the man’s personal identity than his historical significance.

James Woudhuysen

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I like Clint Eastwood’s acting in the films of Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, and I like quite a few of Clint Eastwood’s films as a director, from Play Misty For Me (1971) through to his anti-racist epic, Gran Torino (2008). I even like his tasteful weepy, The Bridges of Madison County. But with J. Edgar, this insightful liberal-leaning Republican, who is elsewhere so acute about the merits of John Ford (in Peter Bogdanovich’s 2006 documentary Directed by John Ford), has made a molehill out of a mountain.

People rave about Eastwood, and he is a great actor, but as a director he can turn out turkeys. Every Which Way But Loose? Certainly not. Billion-Dollar Baby? Though moving, its castigation of the heroine boxer’s trailer-trash family was way over the top. And here we have a terrific subject: the founder and, over eight presidents’ terms, the director of the FBI. And what do we get? A biopic that starts off quite political, swiftly turns into a crime drama and ends up touching on the Kennedys and on Martin Luther King, but for the most part rubs up close to Hoover’s homosexual inclinations. Big deal.

The cinematography is luminous and the production is, too. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a titanic performance as ‘Speed’ – J Edgar Hoover’s childhood nickname, which stayed with him throughout his life. But J. Edgar simply loses its way. We are told that, by the 1930s, Hoover shifted his attention from communists to bank robbers, but we see nothing of his continued and ferocious campaigns, during the Depression, against trade unions. By the time the film gets to the Cold War era, it is all about Hoover’s iffy relationship with his mother and about his romance with his tweedy deputy, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

This is a movie about Hoover’s personal identity, not about his historical significance. Now this can easily be forgiven, but in Hoover’s case it was always going to be hard to understate his political record – as Eastwood does. However, especially since the publication of Anthony Summers’ Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1993), nearly all commentary on Hoover and even the FBI’s distaste for J. Edgar has revolved around his homosexuality, his cross-dressing and, to a lesser extent, his black ancestors.

Like much of feminist biography, the film dwells not on its subject’s public achievements, but on his private life. In the process, and despite two à la Mussolini balcony sequences of Hoover imagining he was president, Eastwood exonerates the FBI chief.

For a movie that claims to be mainly about relationships, that between Hoover and Tolson is not properly explored. Nor is that between Hoover and his lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). In the movie DiCaprio ages abruptly, his hair and demeanour recalling Orson Welles in Citizen Kane or Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the make-up is well done. By contrast, that of Gandy looks too puffy, and, in the case of the elderly Tolson, we meet a puffiness that is ridiculously reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead.

Eastwood does pull off some coups. Hoover’s baptism of anti-communism during 1919 to 1920, when he rounded up thousands of radicals and deported hundreds, is filmed in unflinching style, even if we learn nothing about his concurrent campaign against Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. We also see something – though not enough – of Hoover’s technical innovations. One scene shows how the Library of Congress card index inspired Hoover’s system for tracking the left: according to one account, Hoover had 450,000 cards at his disposal by the 1920s (1). Another scene touches on Hoover’s establishment of a nationwide fingerprinting system, which followed the gathering together, in 1924, of no fewer than 810,000 fingerprint cards. Hoover’s struggle to set up forensic laboratories at the FBI is also covered.

In Congressional hearings, we see DiCaprio display a Hoover weapon that it would be foolish to underrate: oratory. Also of note: in the reading of gay screenplay writer Dustin Lance Black, Hoover had no time for the anti-communist senator Joe McCarthy, whom he described as an opportunist. Nor did Hoover get on with Richard Nixon. These are interesting hints about the Bonapartist role, lording over both Democrats and Republicans, that a senior state official like Hoover was compelled to play in the US during the turbulent years of the Cold War.

But do we see anything in Eastwood’s movie of what Hoover was really up to in that war? At least in Larry Cohen’s low-budget collage, The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover (1977), a saturnine Broderick Crawford is intercut with scary black-and-white documentary footage of Communist Party members Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whom Hoover effectively sent to the electric chair in 1953. But J. Edgar completely skips over Hoover’s postwar mass campaigns against the left, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black Panthers, American Indians and everyone else. Instead, the political focus, such as it is, is liberal, resting simply on Hoover’s intrigues with the Kennedys and King.

Eastwood’s whitewashing of Hoover is entirely consonant with today’s apolitical times. We find it in Britain, too. In the understatement of 2011, the Independent ignorantly opined that Hoover was ‘a right-leaning figure overly interested in the peccadillos of others, who supported some of the excesses of McCarthyism and was generally hostile to the civil rights movement’.

‘The best way to appreciate the nature and objectives of an enemy’, wrote Hoover in the foreword to his long-forgotten 1958 tract Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight it, ‘is to observe him in action’. Though he was known for staying up late to read radical pamphlets, Hoover himself devoted a long passage of his attack on Marx to the German’s unkempt private life. But if future film directors and biographers avoid the petty and instead concentrate on Hoover’s active exercise of state repression, the world may finally come to grips with a man who, for more than half a century, was the malignant heart of US power.

James Woudhuysen is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation.

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