Hoover’s Fingerprints: ‘J. Edgar,’ and a Half-Century of Criminal Crime-Fighting

Since his death, J. Edgar Hoover’s had one hell of a strange career at the movies. Not quite as strange as the career he had as director of the FBI, for 48 years while still alive, but still, there are times when I wonder. I got to wondering all over again just last week, when I saw Clint Eastwood’s brand-new J. Edgar.

Those who are partial to the strangely and boldly hagiographic Hoover (2000; Ernest Borgnine doing his one-man-act thing in a performance that does not add up to even that, with a script that adds up to even less) will not like J. Edgar as much as those who are partial to The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977; a more sane, sober-minded, and altogether more factual production). Most of us, these days, are partial to neither, and it’s we who Eastwood has served above all.

No one will ever get all of Hoover into a film, certainly not a film of a mere two-and-a-half hours. One would have to go and give him the full Nixon (1995): would have to do for Hoover—or to Hoover—what Oliver Stone did for Richard Nixon (or to him) in his much-maligned, when not sadly neglected, three-hour masterpiece.

That’s okay–I’ve long given up hope on anyone ever making a biopic as excellent as Nixon (especially the three-and-a-half hour director’s cut, available on DVD). So I wasn’t disappointed with what I found when I saw J. Edgar, for I found exactly what I had expected to find: a perfectly competent restatement of the major mythology; a sensationalistic and speculative scenario (though perfectly plausible) involving Hoover and his very close friend and assistant, Clyde Tolson; and some questionable but not too egregious history. (What I wasn’t expecting to see was Leonardo DiCaprio, in his make-up as the elderly Hoover, resembling nobody so much as the late Charles Foster Kane. Is this an homage, or just a creepy coincidence, or unavoidable imitation? Nixon, for its part, is rife with Citizen Kane parallels, but they’re all intentional.)

With one exception, the only egregious history in J. Edgar, appropriately enough, turns out to be much of the history inside Hoover’s own head. It’s revealed, throughout and in the end, to be bogus–an alternative text that Hoover tries, in the film’s organizing conceit, to turn into a literal text, with some help from a series of stenographic ghostwriters. The ghostwriters question, object, and seek clarification. Hoover objects to their objections, and continues with his tale.

Some of the fantasy is Eastwood’s own, and I’m sure he had his reasons. Does it matter that Hoover, in spite of the callous manner he exuded in his call to Bobby Kennedy informing him that “The president has been shot,” did not actually hang up the damned phone in the midst of their conversation? And does it matter that the infamous letter the FBI sent to Martin Luther King’s home, along with a reel of tape containing surveilled evidence of an affair, was not actually dictated by Hoover to his assistant, Helen Gandy, but was in fact written by Hoover’s assistant director, William Sullivan? And does it matter that Hoover did not snub a waving President Nixon during Nixon’s inaugural parade, because Nixon (for reasons not at all irrelevant to his Kennedy obsession) was riding in a closed car, and did not really wave to anybody?

These are questions every viewer has to answer for himself. Eastwood is obviously trying to emphasize Hoover’s coldness in the call to Kennedy, his complicity in the letter to King, and his distrust of Nixon. All biopics do this kind of thing, most of them not as subtly as they’ve been done here. Much more troublesome is the way Eastwood lets his Hoover get away with dismissing Joseph McCarthy as “an opportunist” rather than “a professional,” and letting this be the last and defining word on the matter of Hoover’s attitude toward McCarthy. This dismissal of McCarthy by Hoover came much too late—and too privately, besides—after Hoover had already played a big role in giving the opportunist some of his earliest opportunities, in hunting down alleged communists and ruining innocent lives while doing so.

Which brings us back around to Nixon. Nixon was someone whose earliest opportunities were not bestowed by the hand of Hoover. In fact, Nixon had applied to Hoover’s FBI fresh out of law school and been rejected. Nixon knew how to hold a grudge, but even he couldn’t hold this one. During the Red Scare, Nixon made his name at the expense of Alger Hiss. Some 20 years later, while Nixon was safely seated as president (or so it still seemed), Hoover died. This was 48 years after Hoover had become director of the Bureau, and just 35 years after Nixon had applied for the job of special agent within it.

So much had changed since then, and it was Hoover who’d changed a lot of it. He was, as Eastwood depicts, at the vanguard of fingerprinting and other forensics analysis; he was, for a time, a righteous enemy of crime, in the 1920s and ‘30s when Americans glamorized criminals entirely too much; and his earliest forays into wiretapping did come at the authorization of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That doesn’t make a thing right, or even legal, as Nixon himself was to discover long after it was too late for Hoover to help him (and in spite of his infamous remark to David Frost to the contrary). In fact, Nixon, during the Watergate investigation, would semi-privately rue, on the surreptitious recordings he made of his own offices, that those very recordings would never have gotten out had Edgar been alive. That’s not necessarily true. Hoover knew how to handle these things, sure, as the disappearance of his own files plainly attests. (Eastwood makes sure to get that part right.) Hoover’d been the one to first make Nixon aware of the taping system’s existence in the Oval Office, a carry-over from the Johnson administration. (Hoover did not, however–in spite of how Stone has it in one of his deleted scenes–recommend that Nixon install the voice-activated monster that created his menace and masterpiece.)

But Hoover’s power, by then, was already slipping. He was remarkably old, for one thing: 77, and showing every day of it. What’s more, his ferocious disgust with the communists had not dissipated, even though the communists themselves certainly had, at least in America, and his public support was eroding. Hoover’s jealous guarding of the FBI’s secrets—even among other law-enforcement agencies, including the CIA—would create a division in America’s intelligence community whose consequences are still being manifested. Meanwhile, the president Hoover both loathed and leaned on (a taxing relationship he’d had with all his presidents, with the arguable exceptions of Herbert Hoover and LBJ) had already opened up diplomatic talks with Red China, and would soon withdraw from the fight against Vietnamese communists. So J. Edgar Hoover was already gone, in so many ways, before he really went. And when he went, he left behind a world he no longer understood, even if it was a world he’d done so much to create.

Lary Wallace is a contributing editor for The Faster Times. He can be reached at emersonian@ymail.com. ...read more

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