J. Edgar
Produced by Imagine Entertainment and Malpaso Productions
Directed by Clint Eastwood Written by Dustin Lance Black
Distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment


Director Clint Eastwood’s  J. Edgar opens with the June 2, 1919, bomb attack on the Washington, D.C., home of Atty. Gen. Alexander Mitchell Palmer.  As Palmer and his wife come dazedly out of their destroyed house to answer questions asked by gathering policemen, a young man in a cap and knickers shows up and begins to pick through the debris.  He becomes especially interested in dozens of scattered leaflets entitled Plain Words, the publication of the Galleanist anarchist movement that was seeking to strike fear into the ruling class.

The young man is 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), recently graduated from George Washington University’s law school and working for Palmer’s Department of Justice.  He’s about to learn that the bomb that exploded on Palmer’s porch was one of eight that went off simultaneously in separate American cities that night.  The attacks weren’t very successful: Only two people died, including the D.C. bomber hoist with his own petard.  They did succeed, however, in radicalizing Hoover and many other Americans.  The general public clamored for the government to take every measure necessary to cleanse the nation of what they perceived, with some reason, as the foreign enemy in its midst.  The anarchist and communist movements were composed largely of disaffected immigrants who found the American Dream a tempting but unrealizable fantasy.

Having demonstrated his natural forensic instincts and a determination to root out the enemy, Hoover soon found himself placed in charge of the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner to the FBI.  Here he began his career in earnest.  He wanted above all to build a department that would be able to chase anarchists and communists back to their homelands.  To that end, he took a special interest in Emma Goldman, the rabble-rouser who wrote an admiring piece on Palmer’s would-be murderer, calling him a martyr to the cause of social justice.  Whether or not she was guilty of a crime, Goldman would serve to give a face to the otherwise anonymous subversives, that unwashed multitude of disgruntled immigrants.  Goldman became a key to Hoover’s early success, gaining him notice in the press and thereby the means to obtain the financing and the permission to bear arms he needed to create the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Thus equipped, he led what came to be known as the Palmer Raids, rounding up 10,000 suspected subversives, but only persuading the courts to deport 500 of them.  Contemporary critics argued that most of the detained were innocent of any legally prosecutable crime, and many only had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When one of Hoover’s men points out, reasonably enough, that some of “the crimes we are investigating aren’t crimes; they’re ideas,” Hoover dismisses this scruple out of hand.  Bending laws to achieve the higher good was his method from the start.

So this is how the FBI began: a federal operation tasked with purging dangerous dissidents from America.  The mission was unquestionably just in theory, but in practice it soon began to violate the rights of citizens.  At one point, Hoover says, “I could care less if they [the supposed radicals] committed a crime; I’m interested in what they intend to do.”  Sounds like the PATRIOT Act, doesn’t it?

By this point in the film, I was thoroughly engrossed.  It seemed as though Eastwood had made a worthwhile movie for once.  He and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, seemed intent on dramatizing how eagerness to protect society can become grounds for committing injustice in the name of patriotism.  But then the movie takes a far different tack.  Eastwood and Black focus on Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), the man who would become the FBI’s second in command.  It has long been speculated that Hoover and Tolson were involved in a lifelong homosexual union.  Tolson lunched with Hoover daily, went to horse races with him weekly, vacationed with him annually, shared hotel suites whenever out of town, and, ultimately, inherited his estate.  Since neither married, the conclusion seems unavoidable.  And yet, there is no concrete evidence that these fellows ever went the whole hog.

Without knowing the truth of the relationship, Eastwood and Black have decided it was a case of repressed homosexual passion that surfaced only once.  Hoover had been dating the film actress Dorothy Lamour in the 1940’s and seems to have had a physical relationship with her.  Nobody really knows, but the film has Hoover admitting as much when he tells Tolson that he thinks it’s time there was a Mrs. Hoover.  Hearing this, Tolson goes wild, smashing liquor bottles and throwing furniture around their Florida hotel suite.  After punching and wrestling Hoover to the floor, he impulsively plants a long kiss on the director’s bloodied lips.  Shaking him off with difficulty and perhaps reluctance, Hoover remonstrates, “Don’t you ever do that again.”  As Tolson leaves the room, however, Hoover whispers, “I love you, Clyde.  I love you.”

Eastwood and Black have persuaded themselves that sexual repression explains Hoover’s obsessions.  A moment’s reflection, however, makes their supposition ludicrous.  Why would the repression—or conscious suppression—of homosexual desire warp personality any more than would the leashing of heterosexual desire?  Even in our liberated times, heterosexuals commonly stifle their lust for someone other than their spouses for the sake of their marriages and families.  Nevertheless, most of these good folk don’t turn neurotic.  Black, it should be noted, is the homosexual activist who wrote the script for Milk, the loving account of Harvey Milk, the man who legitimized homosexual cavortings in San Francisco and, in doing so, made the city one of the nation’s premiere AIDS incubators.  I’d guess Black has introduced into Eastwood’s film his own homosexual articles of faith, one of which is that the slightest restraint imposed on homosexual desire is bound to curdle an individual’s personality.  This is dime-store psychologizing at its silliest, used by those whose interest it is to promote promiscuity at all costs; even the disease epidemic we’ve witnessed since the 80’s is not too high a price.

Why would Eastwood spend so much time on this grossly misleading line of thought?  I can only guess that it’s part of his ongoing campaign to make himself fully acceptable to the reigning Hollywood elite.  He’s celebrated euthanasia in Million Dollar Baby, raised Nelson Mandela to sainthood in Invictus, sentimentalized infidelity in The Bridges of Madison County, thundered against capital punishment in Mystic River and True Crime.  All in all, Dirty Harry has managed to clean up his act and wax his image to a high liberal gleam.

Other episodes in the film have considerably more merit.  Hoover’s involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping shows him to have been an astute crime-scene analyst and forensics innovator.  To track down the kidnapper, he hired a wood expert to analyze a ladder he suspected the criminal to have descended carrying the baby.  He was right. The ladder helped locate and convict Bruno Hauptmann, a German-immigrant carpenter living in the Bronx, New York.

The celebrated Lindbergh episode introduces scenes depicting Hoover’s interest in and manipulation of popular culture.  After he and Tolson watch Jimmy Cagney in 1931’s Public Enemy, he begins a campaign to encourage movies that celebrate law enforcers rather than criminals.  In no time at all—minutes in reel time, four years in real time—we’re watching clips of Cagney in 1935’s G Men.  Hoover involved himself in filmmaking, radio, and television to burnish the FBI’s image and his own.  Eastwood doesn’t go into it, but the bureau was heavily involved with the making of Mervin LeRoy’s 1959 film The FBI Story, which Hoover not only appeared in but unofficially produced, requiring certain scenes to be reshot to conform to his notion of how agents should look and act.  Jimmy Stewart, the film’s star, reported that, after the film’s release, agents would greet him wherever he traveled overseas, offering any assistance he might need.  (And you thought the FBI was solely a domestic agency.)  Hoover similarly involved himself with the making of the television series The F.B.I., which followed the film, exerting casting and story control.  Hoover even went so far as to instruct his agents to model their appearance on the show’s star, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

As you would guess, Eastwood’s film spends significant time on Hoover’s interest in and alleged persecution of Martin Luther King, Jr.  At one point, Hoover is shown in his darkened office listening to a tape of King’s assignation with one of his female companions.  DiCaprio makes Hoover look grimly outraged by what he hears but also restively jealous of a man taking his sexual pleasure naturally.  Of course, Eastwood would never suggest King was anything but a natural fellow.  King’s plagiarism of his doctoral dissertation and other academic writings goes unmentioned here, nor is much said of his communist ties.  As we have been taught by the media, such minor infractions must be accepted as merely the understandable lapses of a moral crusader in a hurry.  Such understanding is not granted Hoover, another man in a hurry, nor should it be, given the enormous powers Hoover attained and the damage they could and sometimes did inflict on Americans.  Still, fair is fair, and one would hope equal opportunity reigned in both praise and censure in any sphere.

By the film’s conclusion, I was left wondering why Eastwood ignored so many more important moments in Hoover’s career.  Where are Alger Hiss, William “Wild Bill” Donovan of the CIA, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Hoover’s attempts to save Ethel from the chair, and Joseph McCarthy?  And most infuriating, where is Dorothy La­mour?  She’s only mentioned to explain Tolson’s supposed breakdown.  Surely, Eastwood could have found an actress to play this exotically lovely woman, a Louisiana native of French, Spanish, and Irish descent, and shown her romancing with the big G-man.  Maybe Eastwood was reluctant to suggest that Hoover wasn’t a small-minded nativist after all.