J. Edgar Hoover, the man, has been described (at varying points) as controversial, enigmatic, megalomaniacal, a patriot, a zealot, a master of misinformation, paranoid, a visionary, corrupt and, ultimately, one of the most powerful men in U.S. history.
Clint Eastwood’s cinematic interpretation of Hoover’s life, “J. Edgar,” has inspired an equally mixed critical response (which may have resulted in this weekend’s soft box office returns). Ostensibly, the film means to deconstruct J. Edgar’s conflicting portrayals and, in doing so, paradoxically present an image of a complex but fully realized human being.
Yet, many critics have found that the subject simply floated out of Eastwood’s grasp. The film often reads as a series of disjointed vignettes, as if each scene is a separate paragraph lifted from Mr. Hoover’s own dictated autobiography and then interspersed with minor parenthetical adjustments and corrections made by those who were present at the events he is recalling.
In short, “J. Edgar” the film never really takes a solid stance on who J. Edgar the man was.
There is an inherent challenge present in depicting the life of a man who made it his business to become the world’s most adept collector and keeper of secrets – his own and others. At the Los Angeles press conference for “J. Edgar,” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black acknowledged the inconsistencies he encountered during the course of his research. “If you read any of the biographies on J. Edgar Hoover, you find that they contradict each other more than they agree,” he said. “Often times, they’re told from a political perspective.”
It stands to reason that if the opinions of the author bleed into biographical accounts of J. Edgar Hoover's life, then the leanings of the filmmakers would be present in a cinematic representation. What becomes fascinating is that while “J. Edgar” fails to paint a cohesive portrait of one of the most significant figures of the last century, it does parallel some of the larger domestic and global issues of this century.
“J. Edgar,” on the whole, seems to be saying there are legitimate threats to the United States and law enforcement needs to be empowered to effectively manage those threats. But if that power becomes too myopic, then we run the risk of persecuting those who have done no more than present ideas that challenge a flawed status quo, thereby destroying that which we sought to preserve in the first place.
If we examine the essential elements, the film presents three phases in the span of J. Edgar Hoover’s career. First up, an awakening to what (in his mind) had been a sleeping menace and essential danger: communism.
Phase one lead naturally into phase two: the creation of an organization that would and could effectively address the dangers that J. Edgar saw. In his role as director and architect of the Bureau of Investigation he was driven to shore up the weaknesses in the agency’s reach and ability to successfully contain domestic and international hazards (real and perceived). He led the charge in the advance of forensic science, the centralization of information and the expanse of federal jurisdiction -- all of which did indeed create a stalwart and efficient FBI. Hoover was also responsible for controversial domestic spying programs that included the frequent use of illegal wiretapping and often chose blackmail as an appropriate method to maintain his authority.
Which leads us to phase three: J. Edgar’s paranoid pursuit of those who would, in fact, advance the realization of the promise of the Constitution.
Speaking with reporters, Leonardo DiCaprio described the trajectory of the film’s story thusly:
“What I was fascinated by was entering J. Edgar's career during a time of terrorist invasion by communists. The Red Scare. That sort of paranoia that was infused in our country and the lawlessness of these bank robbers that were going from state to state and becoming free men when they crossed state lines and how J. Edgar Hoover really transformed the police system in America and created this Federal bureau that to this day is one of the most feared, respected and revered police forces in the entire world. Of course the story goes on to his later years where he became this political dinosaur that didn't adapt to the changing needs of our country. It's very much about the Kennedy years and the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.
“The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was his staunch belief that communism was an evil thing and he wanted to retain the fundamental principles of democracy in our country. When Civil Rights came along, he saw that as an uprising of the people. He didn't adapt to our country. He stayed in power way too long and he didn't listen to his own critics. He was a staunch believer in his moral beliefs and his beliefs about what was right for our country and therefore his career ended on a failed note in my opinion.”
For the sake of clarity, let us highlight the two sentences that offer the most striking example of J. Edgar’s essential logical failure.
“The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was his staunch belief that communism was an evil thing and he wanted to retain the fundamental principles of democracy in our country. When Civil Rights came along, he saw that as an uprising of the people.”
Aside from the fact that Hoover was acting in opposition to those who (unequivocally in the case of the civil rights movement) had the moral high ground, an uprising of the people is an inherent part of a functioning democracy. A healthy commonwealth does not necessarily need (or want) a violent uprising. But the people's active participation in government is the core foundation of a democracy. So, to resist that is to resist democracy itself. To say you are repressing the will of the people in order to protect the fundamental principles of democracy is an inherently flawed framework.
“J. Edgar” never addresses that crucial contradiction head on. In terms of a personal character exploration, it skirts around J. Edgar’s most consistent trait -- his unfailing hypocrisy. Hoover used other’s sexual inclinations against them even while he desperately hid his own. He fought the loss of democratic freedom via the use of invasive, flawed and ultimately corrosive measures.
We cannot speak to the intent of the filmmaker, but what is fascinating is that while the film’s failure to take a strong stance has led to a fragmented, meandering affair, it also lays bare a nation’s continued conflict with itself.
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