There are certain truisms that we have been trained to take for granted about what makes a story, the most fundamental being that it must have conflict in order to be at all interesting. Attempts have been made to create drama without depicting conflict in any conventional sense, with varying results, the movie My Dinner with Andre being perhaps the best-known example. But most of the time, filmmakers and other storytellers accept this recipe without question.
Hard on the heels of the acceptance of the necessity of conflict comes the presumption that a story – especially a cinematic telling of one – must have at least one hero and at least one villain. Filmmakers, however, often seem to forget that the most interesting conflicts are at times internal rather than external. In a mythic context like a fairytale or a Greek tragedy, a purely virtuous hero and a purely evil villain may work well as personifications of the conflicts that we all feel inside; but in adult contemporary storytelling, they tend to leave us wanting a bit more nuance. That’s why Saruman, the once-benign wizard corrupted by power, is more engaging than Sauron, the one-dimensional incarnation of evil in The Lord of the Rings, and why tortured soul Severus Snape grabs our attention so much more than heartless bogeyman Voldemort in the Harry Potter saga. To be a really good bad guy, a character needs depth, backstory, ambiguity, shades of grey. We want to know how he or she got that way; we want to know what strand in the character’s makeup resonates with our own shadow selves.
This hunger on the viewer’s part makes certain characters in our nation’s history obvious grist for the movie mill; and J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the FBI with an iron hand from 1924 to 1972, is high up there on the list of Americans who have been equally admired and reviled. Clint Eastwood’s ambitious new biopic J. Edgar doesn’t sell the guy’s 37-year career short; it’s neither a puff piece nor a hatchet job. And unlike its protagonist/antagonist, it doesn’t make claims that can’t be substantiated.
Most notorious among the allegations about Hoover that have become widely believed in the decades since his death is the rumor that he was a cross-dresser. Since there’s not a whole lot of evidence behind this rumor, Eastwood takes it as far as having Hoover put on his mother’s dress and curl up sobbing in a fetal position in immediate reaction to her death. But he leaves it there, with no implication that it happened on any other occasion. Similarly, the director and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black (Milk) posit that Hoover was successful in repressing his homosexuality, never acting out his desires for his aide and heir Clyde Tolson, despite their close association and deep attachment over many years. If that interpretation is true, it doesn’t excuse the way Hoover used accusations of homosexuality to blackmail his political enemies, but it does give us some insight into how conflicted he really may have been.
The film’s narrative shows us a man whose formative years were punctuated by anarchist bombings and dominated by a manipulative, racist mother who endows her son with both her ambition and her paranoia. Some of the threats to which young J. Edgar reacts are genuine, such as the organized crime of the Prohibition Era – as are the procedural shortcomings of the investigative agency of the Justice Department that quickly becomes his charge. But from the Palmer Raids onwards, his responses are always extreme – he fires an experienced agent on the spot because he doesn’t like his mustache – and he makes a virtue of his rigidity of personality.
It’s a fault that only grows worse over the decades, as he uses threats to the American Way both real and imagined to rationalize escalating levels of abuse of civil liberties, and sometimes outright extortion and intimidation. Among the most famous victims of his machinations: Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.
By that late point in Hoover’s career, his popularity with the American public was on the wane, but there were many decades when he was lionized by the public as a great defender of the homeland. To his credit, he really did centralize fingerprint records and institute a rigorous laboratory at the FBI for the scientific examination of evidence. He was credited both with solving the Lindbergh baby murder case and the apprehension of John Dillinger. But a large part of that hagiography was written by Hoover himself, and as Eastwood shows us – first in the version from Hoover’s memoirs, then as something really happened – what he marketed to the American public wasn’t always quite the true story.
Leonardo DiCaprio, onscreen for almost the whole movie, is clearly gunning for a Best Actor nod here. With William Randolph Hearst already under his belt, and now J. Edgar Hoover, he’s becoming the go-to guy for portrayals of complicated 20th-century power brokers. And even if doesn’t get the Oscar, he deserves some sort of medal for all the hours that he spent under the trowel of the makeup team who aged him so impressively. The other main characters – Judi Dench as his awful-but-adored mother, Armie Hammer as the dashing Tolson and Naomi Watts as Hoover’s self-sacrificing longtime secretary Helen Gandy – are all convincingly rendered. Eastwood himself composed the understated score, and the sepia-toned cinematography, chiaroscuro lighting and authentic period set design all evoke the flavor of a black-and-white newsreel from Hoover’s heyday.
So I learned a thing or two in J. Edgar about a guy who was never exactly a favorite American hero of mine. My interest was piqued by such surprising revelations as his lack of respect for senator Joe McCarthy, whom he considered “an opportunist, not a patriot,” even though Hoover’s COINTELPRO and McCarthy’s HUAC were on the same side in the Cold War. But what I mostly came away with from this movie was a sense that Hoover was the original Sultan of Spin. “What’s critical,” he tells one of the FBI agents to whom he is dictating his memoirs, “is that we clarify the difference between a villain and a hero.” For all the power that he exercised in his lifetime, the great irony is that J. Edgar Hoover ultimately failed to leave us with that clear definition of himself. And that’s just what makes him interesting enough to be the focus of a 2 ¼-hour movie.