Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: January 26
The definitive scene in J. Edgar only dawned on me an hour after the credits had rolled. A friend was asking me what I thought the film was about, and a picture of Hoover struggling to correctly sign a store account sprang to mind. The man who directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years didn’t really know which name to go by, and Clint Eastwood’s biopic does a good job revealing the confusion at the heart of this determined figure.
J. Edgar chronicles the rise of John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo di Caprio), a fearsome, fanatical civil servant who is both praised and vilified today. Eastwood traces his early career in the Department of Justice and his vendetta against communist radicals, his fledgling bureau’s investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping, its defining moments pursuing bank robbers across the United States, and Hoover’s manipulation of its investigative powers to ensure the FBI’s future.
What emerges is not so much a history, though, as a man at war with himself. As an ardent champion of the law Hoover hounded political dissenter, black activists and homosexuals, but personally struggled with same-sex attraction and was involved in a long-term relationship with his assistant director Robert Irwin (Joshua Hamilton). He was lauded by his mother (Judi Dench), but also dominated by her expectations. Di Caprio attempts to tell her about his interest in men. Dench silences his confessions by telling him the story of cross-dressing young man she had once known. He had been humiliated by his principal and labeled a ‘Daffodil’ by the town, before killing himself. Hoover’s mother then silences his dismay with her icy conclusion:
“Edgar, I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.”
Eastwood’s construction clearly portrays Hoover as a man as petty as he was powerful. Di Caprio not only has a warped view of the world around him, but ultimately himself. He tells a senate inquiry, “When morals decline and good men do nothing evil flourishes. We must never forget our history. We must never lower our guard.” But though the FBI director constantly espouses high-minded ideals and teamwork, he takes every opportunity to put himself in the limelight. A colleague warns him in the film’s opening moments, “You know the funny thing about notoriety, the sort that feeds on adoration? Left unchecked it always leads to villainy.” And even as Hoover struggles to set up one of the finest law enforcement agencies in the world, we see he him using the FBI to enforce his opinions or take revenge. Acting US Attorney General Lawrence Silberman, the first person to see Hoover’s secret files after his death believed:
“J. Edgar Hoover was like a sewer that collected dirt. I now believe he was the worst public servant in our history.”
But did Hoover see himself that way? Undoubtedly not. He’d surrounded himself with friends and colleagues who praised his character and his methods, and aggressively eliminated any contradiction. In fact he might have been congratulated by today’s champions of self-confidence. However his public achievements did not excuse his personal corruption. And isn’t there a lesson writ large here for smaller figures like you and me? It doesn’t help us to be brimming with self-belief if the only opinion we’re consulting is our ego. Better the objective view the Bible, however hard it may be to swallow. If we can’t see our sickness clearly, we’re unlikely to ever seek a cure.