As a kid I listened on the radio to “The FBI in Peace and War.” My parents had listened during the mid 1930s to “G-Men.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover helped produce those programs and, in Clint Eastwood’s new biopic film, “J. Edgar,” we learn that Hoover orchestrated several other radio and TV shows to portray the FBI’s arrests of “dangerous criminals” and its “monitoring” of “subversive communists” as the product of a team approach, which he personally inculcated.
The grammar of entertainment, however, calls for individual heroes and Hoover didn’t want courageous field agents — like Mel Purvis who killed John Dillinger — to steal glory from him and, as the movie instructs us, he dumped him. Hoover’s ideal FBI consisted of look-alikes, with similar suits and haircuts — dictated by their boss. In the film, the young Hoover (Leonardo di Caprio) fires an agent with a mustache. Hoover didn’t approve of facial hair.
At age 10 I knew Hoover from all the radio talk as the leader of a police force that always got its man. My communist Uncle Max sneered. “Hoover’s a rotten phony. He dances in a tutu in his living room with his wife Clyde Tolson.”
I sputtered with indignation at such slander. I knew better because I listened to Gang Busters, which I even saw at the movies in the weekly serials. By the 1960s, I came to agree with Uncle Max. Under Hoover’s COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program), FBI informers penetrated civil rights and anti-war groups, agents provocateurs proliferated and the FBI committed criminal acts. Hoover destroyed people’s lives, which he justified with his trite anti-commie rhetoric.
In 1974, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, I received 1,000 plus pages of my own file, half of them blacked out. The Bureau had tapped my phone. Page after page recounts conversations I had with my father — nothing even remotely political — and plans I had to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles to visit him. The FBI had planted an informant at the TV station where I worked, so that they had my air travel plans.
In the early 1970s, the Bureau revealed, under court order, that it had planted some 70 informants at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) where I worked. A federal judge made the Bureau pay all legal and court costs and enjoined them from repeating their activities.
In September 1976, the FBI began investigating the Washington DC assassination of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier by car bombing, which also took the life of Ronni Moffitt, an IPS colleague who sat next to him as the explosion ripped through his car. Honest FBI investigators solved the case and named the head of Chilean intelligence and other secret police officials along with five right-wing Cuban exiles as the perpetrators.
Hoover’s political police did little to stop the Mafia or corporate crime, but did collect files on millions of Americans. Hoover’s librarian instincts?
I deduce from Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” that my radio show portrait, Uncle Max’s ridicule and my own experiences with the FBI omitted one item: Hoover also had a soul. DiCaprio plays a tortured, closet homosexual with a dominatrix mother (Judi Dench) who didn’t want “to have a daffodil for a son.”
When she died, Hoover put on her dress and necklace and wept. Eastwood and scriptwriter Dustin Lance Black (of the film “Milk”) show that the powerful and controlling head of the country’s largest police agency also experienced deep emotional pain.
We see intelligence and ambition in his rise from librarian to keeper of the files. President John F. Kennedy slept with an East German spy, Hoover tells Bobby Kennedy to make it clear that he shouldn’t even think about firing him.
DiCaprio grasps Hoover’s prurient disorientation, almost drooling, when he listens to a tape from a bug planted by Bureau agents in Marin Luther King’s hotel room — with a woman. He gloats while reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s mail, “discovering” a supposed lesbian relationship with a woman reporter.
After Hoover died in 1972, we see Nixon immediately dispatch a squad to destroy Hoover’s secret files — some of them on Nixon. Hoover’s secretary-gatekeeper, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), had tried to limit J. Edgar’s overboard actions, and even in death she protects Hoover’s public image, which he equated with that of the Bureau. The film shows her shredding those files before Nixon’s destruction squad reaches Hoover’s office.
Eastwood portrays Hoover’s defenselessness in a lovers’ or married couple’s quarrel when he and his partner Tolson (Armie Hammer) — to whom he left all his possessions — punch, wrestle and then kiss. Hoover loved him, but the film doesn’t show or even suggest sexual consummation. The audience must judge this emotional, distressed, authoritarian control freak, this intelligent but vulnerable man, who gets embarrassed at a congressional hearing because of his self-promoting activities.
In the film old Hoover dictates his story to young Special Agents, but Hoover doesn’t tell the truth; rather he promotes himself by distorting the facts to reflect that he has single-handedly protected the country from ruthless killers, kidnappers (the Lindberg kidnapping occupies much film space) and all things that smack of communism, anarchism or pinko-leftism.
Hoover spews patriotism and hatred of communism, but the film leads us to suspect Hoover hated himself. Unable to control his most loathsome impulse — his mother hated “daffodils” — he tries to achieve power over people and institutions. The film subtly suggests Hoover became his own internal enemy; his mother subverted him by not allowing his sexuality (identity) to emerge. His career stained, not marked, decades of US history and many people paid a heavy price for his psychic dynamics.
Saul Landau’s latest film is ‘Will The Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?