Clint Eastwood has certainly come a long way from Dirty Harry. His new film about J. Edgar Hoover, from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, will upset many right-wingers. I wish I could give this movie an unqualified endorsement, but I have some reservations about it.
The film portrays Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a repressed homosexual, and it suggests that this repression was the source of his obsessive behavior. He and his number two man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), have a relationship similar to that between Burns and Smithers on The Simpsons. When Hoover tells Tolson that he intends to propose to Dorothy Lamour, the two of them have what amounts to a lovers’ quarrel. Their relationship, however, is never consummated. Hoover is portrayed as being obsessed with his domineering mother (Judi Dench), while being emotionally estranged from his father. Some will no doubt make the valid complaint that this reproduces an all too common “explanation” of homosexuality. You must admit, however, that this fits with what we know about Hoover.
Hoover is portrayed as petty and jealous. He deliberately wreaks the career of an F.B.I. agent named Melivin Purvis, because the latter has received more publicity than he has. He is also extremely prone to self-delusion. He says things like “love is the most powerful force in the world” without the least trace of irony. He tells people that he saved the U.S. from a “Bolshevik” revolution in 1919. In one scene, Hoover complains that newly elected president Richard Nixon wants him to do things that are illegal, oblivious to the fact that he has been doing illegal things all his life.
The film reminds us that Hoover began his career as a librarian. (Yes, it’s true.) He helped the Library of Congress develop a new system of organizing books. In one particularly eerie scene, the young Hoover tells his future secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) that he wishes he could organize and identify people the same way he does books. “Information is power”, he tells her.
I found this movie fascinating to watch and even darkly funny at some moments. The acting is very good (DiCaprio is brilliant). However, it seemed a bit over-long. One weakness of the film is that it devotes far too much time to the Lindbergh kidnapping. Eastwood and Black apparently wanted to make the point that Hoover claimed to have solved the case when he actually hadn’t. (All the F.B.I. proved, really, was that Bruno Hauptmann was somehow connected to the crime.) This is a valid argument, but it skews the film towards a relatively minor episode of his career. For that matter, the film devotes too much time to the “Hoover was a closet queen” theory. This would have been a better film if it had spent more time on COINTELPRO and the way it destroyed people’s lives.
The posters for this movie call Hoover “the most powerful man in the world”. This is an enormous exaggeration. Hoover was actually an extremely ruthless and shrewd courtier, one who built his own fiefdom inside the U.S. government. This film attributes Hoover’s power to his knack for blackmailing people. There is a good deal of truth to this, but there was more to it than that. Many powerful people defended Hoover (or at least looked the other way), because they knew he was defending the interests of the ruling class. This could have been a more powerful film if it had made this point in some way.