Saturday, November 12, 2011
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -
J Edgar (Warner Bros. USA, directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Dustin Lance Black) a bio pic about legendary (and/or infamous) U.S. FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover is destined to be remembered as one of 2011's best films, and earn a plethora of Oscar Nominations. Let's count them: (1) in a field of 10 a certain nomination for Best Picture, (2) a certain nomination and possible/probable award for Best Director (Clint Eastwood), (3) a possible nomination for Best Original Screen Play (Dustin Lance Black), (4) a certain nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Leonardo diCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover), a (5) certain nomination and probable award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Judy Dench, as J. Edgar Hoover's mother), (6) a possible second nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, J. Edgar Hoover's lifelong secretary), and (7) a possible a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover's lifelong confidante and possibly more).
Why would J. Edgar Hoover be simultaneously legendary and controversial (or even infamous)? Well he was a very, very interesting/compelling and arguably dangerous persona in American history. Consider simply that he was the founding director of the FBI in 1935 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and remained director of the FBI until his death in 1972 four years into the Richard M. Nixon Administration. In Washington, D.C. almost no one lasts that long in a job (under 6 presidents -- FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon). How did he do it? In the kindest of language, he was the epitome indeed "poster child" of the entrenched bureaucrat that only blasting powder could remove. In reality, as head of the U.S. federal government's premier police/domestic intelligence agency, it came down to him having files on absolutely everybody of consequence in the United States during his decades-long tenure. No politician would dare to try to expel him without worrying that J. Edgar Hoover would take him down as well. Indeed, the film noted the celebrated battles that J. Edgar Hoover had with Robert Kennedy, the President's brother and Attorney General during the JFK Administration, and during with the equally information craving/paranoid Richard Nixon Administration during the last years of Hoover's life.
So how could such a tenacious indeed ruthless bureaucrat come to be made? Well Eastwood and Black suggest that a good part of the roots of his tenaciousness could be found in his upbringing. His mother Annie Hoover (played in the movie by Judy Dench) had big plans for her son including "recapturing" their (lost in some way) WASPish family's "honor." How the family had "lost" some of its previous honor was not clear, but J. Edgar Hoover (played by Leonardo diCaprio) seemed on a life-long mission to "recapture" it. And most adults would know that such a "mission" would be a fool's errand. How much "honor" had been "lost"? How much needed to be "recaptured?" How much "honor" collected was enough? No matter how many successes Hoover had -- and he had plenty of successes, he was instrumental in defeating (indeed destroying) the Red Scare in the United States after World War I, his new FBI was instrumental in defeating (again, indeed destroying) the unprecedented wave of criminality that existed in the early 1930s, his agency did largely keep the country safe from infiltration of Nazi spies during the 1930s/WWII and Communists afterwards -- it was never, ever enough. So Hoover became a life-long publicity hound: He made cameo appearances in films. He allowed himself to become a character in children's crime fighting comic books. He even convinced himself that _he_ was the one who gunned-down the famed gangster Dillinger when he wasn't even in that part of the country when Dillinger was taken-down by the FBI in Chicago.
Another part of his story, only becoming more fodder for discussion in recent years (after his death) was that J. Edgar Hoover, who never married, was probably gay and for various reasons he surrounded himself with other probably gay/lesbian assistants, including his lifelong spinster personal secretary Helen Gandy (played by Naomi Watts) and FBI agent, life-long confidante and travel companion Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer). About the latter, the film notes at the end of the film that Hoover had made Clyde Tolson the principal heir to his estate, including his house. Additionally, Tolson received the ceremonial American flag at the end of his (state) funeral. Finally, Tolson is buried only a few feet from J. Edgar Hoover's grave at Washington D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery. That J. Edgar Hoover would be gay (and would surround himself with other gay/lesbian assistants) would actually make some sense at that time because there was no way to be openly gay. So one way to "hide" was to bury oneself in one's work. And that's exactly what Hoover and the others around him did.
Finally, if Hoover was, in fact, repressed sexually this would help explain both his ruthlessness (his tendency to not be content with simply besting opponents but seeking to utterly destroy them) and his tendency to focus on the moral (sexual) failings of his perceived opponents even to the detriment of his agency's doing its job (of protecting the nation). I mentioned above that the FBI had managed to keep the USA largely safe from infiltration by Nazi saboteurs during the Nazi era/World War II. But this was largely by luck/accident. In a celebrated incident not mentioned in the film, a number of would-be saboteurs were caught right on the beaches in New York and Florida by local cops by accident (though Hoover would later portray this as part of an FBI sponsored dragnet to keep potential Nazi spies in check). What Hoover seemed to find far more interesting was keeping tabs on the personal lives (and failings) of the Roosevelts, in particular on the possibly lesbianism of FDR's wife Eleanor.
Similarly in certainly the most controversial scene in this film, J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed as being engrossed in listening to an audio surveillance tape of Martin Luther King, Jr having adulterous sex with a woman at the very moment that he received word that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. Was this true? Was J. Edgar Hoover doing exactly this when he got word of the JFK assassination? Probably/almost certainly not, and I've complained about similar dramatic oversteps in the recent cable television series The Borgias (about the escapades of Pope Alexander VI and his family) and the film Anonymous (promoting the thesis that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him). In the case of this film, however, I would argue that the flagrant dramatic license taken is probably the most justified because it does point to a truth: J. Edgar Hoover really was fixated on (once again) destroying a possible adversary of the United States (Martin Luther King, Jr and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Hoover convinced himself was being infiltrated by Communists) and as a result the FBI (at minimum) completely dropped the ball with regard to Lee Harvey Oswald, a former defector to the Soviet Union (who subsequently returned, apparently with few/no questions asked) as a potential threat to the President or the nation.
There are also various themes arising from the film that are certainly topical today. One gets the sense that if Hoover lived today, he would have been a fan of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which greatly expanded police/surveillance power, because Hoover seemed to be always in favor expanding the law enforcement powers of his FBI. On the other hand, the film did portray quite well J. Edgar Hoover's early experiences in fighting radicalism (the anarchists of the early 20th century) and the almost quaint lack of coordination and lack federal law enforcement powers that most law enforcement officials take for granted today. Finally, I do believe that the movie shows quite well the drawbacks of allowing someone to stay in his/her position for too long: J. Edgar Hoover was portrayed as someone who (perhaps necessarily) saw everything through the lens of his early experiences fighting those anarchists of the early 20th century. So he utterly misunderstood the nature of Martin Luther King Jr's Gandhi inspired peaceful civil rights movement.
All in all, I do consider J. Edgar to be one best films of the year, not simply because of Leonardo DiCaprio and Judy Dench's outstanding performances or Clint Eastwood's (once again) outstanding direction, but above all in its offering of so much fodder for reflection both in this movie's study of this famously driven (repressed/paranoid/megalomaniacal?) man and in its survey of the times in which he lived and worked. Adapting an old Chinese proverb to my purposes here: I do believe that for good or ill, if nothing else, J. Edgar Hoover was a very interesting man who lived in very interesting times.
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