J. Edgar: The Odd Biopic

Tolson-Hoover, Real Life
J. Edgar is an odd movie.

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.

Generally speaking (the movie does have flaws), Invictus succeeds because the event, rugby, is able to showcase Nelson Mandela's character through the eyes of ordinary citizens. The point of view is uneven, but the viewer does come away with a strong feel for Mandela's character (as interpreted by Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman).

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 oddity: the event is The Lindbergh Case.

As someone who has studied The Lindbergh Case, I found the dramatization of those events quite fascinating, even if told (inaccurately) from Hoover's point of view. The problem is not that the Lindbergh Case is not fascinating; the problem is that discussing Hoover without focusing on Communism is rather like forgetting to mention that Nelson Mandela is black.

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 (above): That hardly matters. I mean, what with
Burgess, McLean, Philby, Blake and Fuchs and the
Krogers, one more didn't make much difference.
It is also helpful to understand that there were far more Communist spies in the Federal Government during the 1950s and 1960s than anyone wanted to admit (a state of affairs equally true in Britain and hilariously spoofed in Yes, Prime Minister--see quote). Hoover knew this. He knew it because of illegal wiretaps. But his knowledge created a story in his mind that grew out of proportion to the reality. When his agents attempted to report that a group wasn't Communist in nature--and posed about as much threat to the United States as conspiring jellyfish--Hoover wouldn't listen. To please the boss, one had to report THREATS!

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."
(3) The Hoover-Tolson relationship is finely written and portrayed. Impressively, it retains the ambiguity that credible Hoover historians, such as Athan Theoharis, attach to that relationship. As Marc Aronson points out while summarizing research on Hoover, most credible historians believe that Hoover did not have (homo)sexual relations with anyone (nor did he dance on tables in bars while cross-dressing). Those rumors were deliberately spread about at a time when they were less salacious and ribald than damaging (and sometimes by people who were trying to get at men near Hoover, not Hoover himself).

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.


Joe said...

My theory is that Hoover was asexual and few people know how to deal with that because not feeling any sexual urges seems so foreign to the human experience. However, I suspect that asexuality is more common than homosexuality. Of course sexuality, like most human things, is on a continuum, so there are also people who really are content with having sex purely to reproduce--I suspect a lot of religious leaders fall into that category. The flip-side is that people on the asexual end of the spectrum don't understand the other side any better and may see most sexual behavior as a lack of self-control if not a perversion.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I think asexuality is a very interesting possibility. There are far more possibilities than the two (occasionally three or four) labels offered by even well-meaning analysts.

I think Cary Grant, for example, was heterosexual (unlike Hoover, he was friends and lovers with women his whole life) but may have been low-sexed. He was far too much a part of Hollywood culture to adopt Hoover's solution: take refuge in a comfortable all boys' FBI and gather about himself a "posse" of like-minded boy-friends.

Grant had to get married, but his real-life sexuality may have been so disparate from his on-screen persona (which, frankly, any man would find hard to live up to), the women may have been surprised and/or disappointed. (Made him a great actor though!)

Of course, all this is speculation! Annoyed historians will point out the utter lack of proof in any particular direction. I think it matters mostly *because* historians are sometimes too absolute in their labels. As Joe says, it's all on a continuum--and understanding that gets one further along in understanding historical personalities than labels ever will.