|Tolson-Hoover, Real Life|
In J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood attempts to do the same thing that he did in Invictus (where it kind of works): tell the story of a complex personage through the unwinding of a single event.
I'm in favor of this type of storytelling--but in order for it to work, the single event needs to be the right single event.
J. Edgar's script approaches Hoover in the same way--except this time, the event is told from Hoover's perspective. It is not meant to be accurate; it is meant to highlight that Hoover was boastful, intelligent, devoted, prejudiced, dictatorial, hard-hitting, paranoid, and self-aggrandizing.
The problem is, the event is The Lindbergh Case.
The main "case" of Hoover's existence, especially from his own perspective, was the fight against Communism.
The movie starts out in a tantalizing way--with the bombings that led to the Palmer Raids. I agree that if one is to understand Hoover, one should start by acknowledging that he grew up during a time of great unrest in the United States. Terrorism was a real and constant part of life in the early 1900s (and dynamite can do a tremendous amount of damage).
|PM: The head of MI5? A Russian agent? How much did|
|he tell the Soviets?|
|DG (see above): That hardly matters. I mean, what with|
|Burgess, McLean, Philby, Blake and Fuchs and the|
|Krogers, one more didn't make much difference.|
At one point in the movie, we are shown Hoover's prejudice--as he dictates the blackmail letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. (another agent likely composed and sent the letter at Hoover's instigation), yet the viewer is given zero context. Hoover is revealed to be prejudiced (which he was) but not fearful of King as a Communist agitator (which he and the Kennedys both mistakenly believed King to be).
Hoover and Communism is the fascinating story that could have been told.
Only it wasn't.
The movie does do several things right: (1) Judi Dench as Hoover's mom captures her toughness and her idolizing of Hoover (yup, yet again, Judi Dench proves that she really can do anything); (2) Leonardo DiCaprio does a fantastic job capturing not only Hoover's rigidity but his need for approval. The cagey wiretapping and so-called blackmailing become a strange form of socialization. He doesn't simply get "great men" to bow (voluntarily) to his whims (they wanted Hoover's information); he forces them to recognize him as more than a bumptious guy (or pretend to).
|Tolson-Hoover from the film: No one comes right out|
|and says, "This is what we are arguing about."|
However, any historian of Hoover ends us addressing his unclear sexuality. Aronson argues that Hoover likely didn't have a clue about himself and would certainly never have tried to have a clue (this is the interpretation used in the movie).
So one does come away from the film with some sense of Hoover--I reread and read a few Hoover books as a result--but the absence of a serious discussion of WHY America felt threatened by Communism (even told from the point of view of an clever, paranoid fearmonger) creates a blind spot in the movie that is hard not to hold against it.