Sunday, November 13, 2011

Profile of a Demagogue: J. Edgar Hoover for the Moviegoing Masses

Armie Hammer and Leonardo DiCaprio in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar

It seems like a case of The Good, the Bad and the Really Awful Timing. Of all the weeks for Clint Eastwood to announce he’s supporting Herman Cain, this one began with the Republican presidential hopeful’s sexual harassment scandal and ended with the filmmaker’s debut of J. Edgar. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the late Federal Bureau of Investigation director, J. Edgar Hoover, still as controversial a figure four decades after his death as the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza now running for the Oval Office. Both are examples of how powerful men can survive criticism of their misdeeds in a society that rewards ruthlessness. The question remains, though, has Eastwood created a smart work of art while demonstrating stupid political calculations?

There apparently was a bit of equivocation when it came to choosing which facets of Hoover, always a force to be reckoned with, were worthy of scrutiny. While he can be credited with modernizing law enforcement by introducing forensics in the pursuit of criminals, his extremism undermined what might have been a stellar career that spanned 48 years, eight U.S. presidents and three wars. With a background of acting gigs that involve vigilante fiction, Eastwood dances around the issues of racism and homophobia in trying to evoke some degree of compassion for an individual consumed by his own hypocrisy.

J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson
J. Edgar tells much of the bleak story through flashbacks, as Hoover dictates a memoir near the end of his life. He’s an extremely unreliable narrator, we later learn, yet the audience only has his account to go by for most of the film’s 137 minutes. It’s difficult not to feel tricked by the master of dirty tricks and his cinematic biographer, the iconic Dirty Harry. In a pivotal scene close to the end, the protagonist is confronted with his significant distortions of fact by deputy FBI director – and adoring longtime companion – Clyde Tolson. The ground suddenly shifts beneath us; we’re left to sort out what’s real or imagined in the material that’s previously been depicted onscreen. This narrative device is clever but unfair. The picture brings an almost Inception-like aura to the deception, even with a stunning turn by DiCaprio as a guy who is cruelly judgemental about others yet incapable of examining his troubled psyche.

Tolson (Armie Hammer, the Winkelvoss twins in 2010‘s The Social Network) is a D.C. legal eagle immediately smitten with Hoover when they meet, both young and attractive. (DiCaprio ages convincingly over the course of 40 years, but the makeup job for his colleague’s elderly visage is like a ghoulish Halloween mask.) The admiration is mutual, as the dynamic duo vows to eat every lunch and dinner together in perpetuity. But the men do not, according to Eastwood and the script by Dustin Lance Black (Milk, 2008), ever dare share a bed. When the passionate underling plants a desperate smooch on the mouth of his repressed mentor, he’s told to never pucker up like that again. Their bromance must remain chaste.

The kiss takes place after a bloody fight, which follows Hoover’s revelation to Tolson that he has slept with actress Dorothy Lamour and is thinking of marrying her because “a Mrs. Hoover” would be good for his image. It’s another important plot detail that’s contrived to come out of left field: surprise, surprise. In that the nation’s two top spooks spend almost every waking moment with each other, including vacations, how is the audience to believe his heterosexual liaison with a popular celebrity could be kept under wraps? Unless Hoover’s once again lying, a talent that matches his genuine skill at organizing complex systems.

Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy

Before developing an FBI file on every one of his enemies or potential enemies in the world, he has implemented a nerdy card catalogue for the entire Library of Congress. This feat impresses Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who eschews her chance to become a Mrs. Hoover in favor of signing on as his devoted secretary just as he’s scheming what will be a de facto takeover at the Department of Justice. Like Tolson, she is slavishly loyal to him and doesn’t begin to question anything until Hoover’s paranoia has grown more pronounced in the mid-1960s.

DiCaprio’s intense performance helps divert attention from the production’s many flaws and memories of earlier Hoover impersonations by actors, such as Ernest Borgnine and Bob Hoskins, who bear a greater resemblance to the bulldog largely unchallenged by the establishment. Hammer’s Tolson, veering from sensitive soul to oblivious enabler, is harder to comprehend. As Gandy, Watts appears too intelligent to simply go along with whatever her boss wants, no matter how insidious. At first, in the 1930s, Hoover convinces everyone he’s a champion at battling gangsters and climbing the ladder of success purely to defend democracy. At several junctures, the petty and bitter egotist attempts to steal the spotlight from Agent Melvin Purvis, who has gunned down bank robber John Dillinger.

Conservative politicians complain that Hollywood is glorifying crime. Hoover gets into the act by pressuring the entertainment industry to change its focus. A subsequent trajectory is nicely represented by sequences of Americans initially wowed by Jimmy Cagney as a thug in The Public Enemy (1931), but later being equally seduced by his role as a federal agent in G Men (1935). These are Warner Bros. releases, as is J. Edgar, so the whole shebang also exists as an Eastwood homage to the studio.

Defying skeptics, Hoover uses the new science of forensics to solve an infamous 1934 kidnapping and murder: The baby son of aviator Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas). Hoover then turns his attention to the Bolsheviks. From then on, it’s all about rooting out communism. Eastwood lets him off the hook on the worst of the Red Scare when he suggests Senator Joe McCarthy is “an opportunist, not a patriot.” Yet, in real life, they were friends and the denunciations of the era were accomplished with FBI help.

Hoover (left), Tolson (second from right) and Senator Joe McCarthy
(In reality, Hoover also was a Mafia denier – the mob simply did not exist in his view – but the movie steers clear of that ridiculous assumption. Ditto for no mention of COINTELPRO, the endeavor to, in Hoover’s words, "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize" all movements that smacked of liberation or liberalism in the early 1970s.) His relentless pursuit of leftists had already extended to a campaign against civil rights activists. This situation is given short shrift in the film, which doesn’t bother to explain that, under Hoover, the FBI was reluctant to stop the lynchings, shootings and burnings carried out by Southern bigots.

Eastwood does cover his gathering of information on John F. Kennedy’s love affairs, used to blackmail Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) into complicity. (Before testifying at the Warren Commission looking into the assassination of JFK, Hoover convinced Lyndon Baines Johnson to appoint him FBI director for life. In a tale that necessarily relies on lots of speculation, why wouldn’t the movie want to speculate about what kind of deal might have gone down at that point?)

Eventually, audiotapes of Martin Luther King’s womanizing send Hoover into overdrive. He obsesses about writing an anonymous letter demanding that MLK kill himself rather than accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Tolson and Gandy finally push back a little. Just a little. (When MLK was assassinated four years later, employees at the Atlanta FBI office reportedly cheered: “They got the SOB!” The self-righteous Hoover’s culture of intolerance permeated the agency, another Eastwood omission.)

Ironically, some time ago genealogy researchers unearthed evidence that Hoover, who wasn’t baptized until age 13 and had no birth certificate until he turned 43, may have been the progeny of a black family in Mississippi. Herman Cain recently proclaimed he’s the “brother from another mother” of siblings David and Charles Koch, oil company heirs whose funding of right-wing causes has been linked to dirty tricks that would have made Hoover proud. Maybe Eastwood is too busy to notice that the promoter of the 9-9-9 economic plan has pledged to build an electrified fence and a moat with alligators at the border, measures that would potentially spell doom for undocumented immigrants. Go ahead, make his day!

A mama’s boy who never left home, Hoover is in the thrall of his (possibly adoptive) mother, portrayed by the estimable Judi Dench as a kissing cousin of Angela Lansbury‘s conniving maternal character in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In J. Edgar, the confused kid has been told by this monster that she’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil – her euphemism for gay – son. (By the 1950s, the adult Hoover was spreading rumors that Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was a daffodil.) When mom dies, in 1938, he is devastated, briefly donning her clothing and jewelry. Perhaps meant to quell the urban legend that Hoover was an inveterate cross-dresser, the moment instead conjures up Norman Bates in drag, without the knife.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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