Clint Eastwood is nothing if not unpredictable. His latest film, J. Edgar, is an old-fashioned Hollywood biopic shot at a leisured pace—two hours and seventeen minutes—with polished production values and meticulous attention to period detail. What is truly surprising, however, is his choice of subject, and his manner of presenting him. J. Edgar Hoover was, from this civil libertarian’s point of view, the arch-villain of twentieth-century America. As the man who bluffed, buffaloed, and finally blackmailed his way through eight American presidencies, forging in the process a virtually unaccountable fourth branch of government, he did more to create the national security state that now battens on us than anyone else. His is a story that proves the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Hoover’s goal was to gain absolute power—a power that brushed aside the checks and balances of the courts, the Congress, and the executive branch within which he was, technically, a bureau chief reporting to the Attorney General. He succeeded in this to a remarkable extent over a more than half-century career, federalizing the criminal justice system and defining much of the domestic agenda of the executive branch while vastly expanding its—and his—reach and control. No one like Hoover had ever been seen before; no one like him may ever be possible again. His legacy, however, is secure. We are all less free.
This is obviously a story worth telling, although the documentary would seem to be the obvious form for doing so. The evil that men do, after all, lives after them; their foibles are merely transitory. But Eastwood has chosen to tell Hoover’s life as a love story. Yes, his career is traced in a back-and-forth flashback style, and its highlights touched upon or at least alluded to (sometimes barely). There is certainly no intention to whitewash it; we see Hoover building a paramilitary organization based on absolute loyalty and subservience, breaking or rewriting laws to suit his fancy, and blackmailing a succession of presidents from FDR to JFK. But the heart of the story is Hoover’s long amatory relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson, in Eastwood’s telling a platonic one, but all the more poignant and in its way passionate for that.
Hoover and Tolson met in the 1920s when the latter, having worked in the War Department, was recruited for the then-titled Bureau of Investigation. Tolson was tall and handsome, his manners easy. He and the short, pug-faced Hoover soon became inseparable, taking meals and vacations together. Rumors circulated about them for decades, after his high-profile busts of Prohibition gangsters, Hoover was far too powerful to accuse publicly. Eastwood and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, see Hoover as in thrall to his overbearing mother Annie, who thwarted his sexuality (and with whom he lived until her death in 1938). In a quite chilling scene, Annie—superbly played by Judi Dench—forces the mature Edgar to learn to dance lest he be seen as gay. Hoover would clumsily propose to his future secretary, Helen Gandy, who served both as the stern gatekeeper of the Director’s inner sanctum and functioned, it would seem, as an alter ego to Annie after the latter’s death. Helen’s response, both a relief to Hoover and an apparent recommendation, was that she was uninterested in marriage, and she remained a spinster. Although they were on formal terms—always “Miss Gandy,” never “Helen”—it appears that Hoover was in a way as emotionally dependent on her as on Clyde.
As for Clyde, Eastwood depicts him as repressing his far more relaxed and acknowledged homosexuality for the sake of his relationship with Hoover. The emotional climax of the film comes as Clyde explodes at Edgar, who has confessed to a relationship with the actress Dorothy Lamour (Hoover had been romantically linked to her in the 1930s). In terms of Eastwood’s reading of Tolson, his jealousy stems from his own sexual repression: if he is obliged to be chaste both with and for Edgar, then Edgar must commit himself to the same fidelity, and there can be no mariage blanc to separate them. In a later scene the aged Clyde, bowed by a stroke, quietly confronts Hoover with the long career of lying and fantasy with which he built up the mythical image of the ultimate G-man, and Hoover not only submissively accepts the rebuke but whispers his love for Clyde. Once again, one senses the presence of Annie in the room.
All this does much to humanize Hoover, and—who knows?—there might even be truth in it. The later rumors of cross-dressing orgies that circulated about Hoover are indirectly alluded to when Edgar, at the moment of Annie’s death, tearfully puts on her dress and pearl necklace (only to tear the latter apart in a gesture of failed rebellion). But Eastwood doesn’t see Edgar that way; repression, not depravity, is for him the key to his character, and also to the empire of fear he created. The secret files he built up on the sexual peccadilloes of thousands of public figures makes ultimate sense as the repository of his own fiercely contained impulses.
Hoover did have one public weakness, playing the ponies. The Mafia is said to have covered his substantial gambling debts, which some have alleged as the reason why Hoover not only turned a blind eye to its activities in the 1940s and 1950s, but went so far as to deny the existence of organized crime. I have to suspect there was more to it than that, and that the Mafia had its own files on Edgar. It needs to be remembered, too, that the links between the Mafia and the White House, from Lucky Luciano’s wartime collaboration with FDR to the brothel service Sam Giancana ran for Jack Kennedy, make for a more complicated story than we usually hear. In any event, although Eastwood hones in on Hoover’s involvement in the Red Scare raids of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in 1919 and the Lindbergh baby case, he passes by the Mafia’s heyday and the McCarthy era with barely a nod. (Hoover is made to dismiss McCarthy as a phony, but the two certainly made hay together in Red-baiting—a convenient cover, among other things, for Hoover’s silence about the Mob.)
Biopics, of course, are not to be confused with biographies. Eastwood is covering more than fifty years in two hours and change, and his interest is in getting at Hoover the man. There is, however, one public issue connected to Eastwood’s portrayal of Hoover that is essential to his story, and which the film studiously ignores. That is the witch-hunt he engaged in against homosexuals, who were targeted as subversives who threatened the Republic no less than Communist agents. This climaxed in Eisenhower’s notorious executive order to root out perverts from the government, and in the American Psychological Association’s designation of homosexuality as a form of “insanity” in 1952. The APA removed this protocol only in 1973, one year after the death of J. Edgar Hoover.
Leonardo DiCaprio seems to have spent the last decade and a half trying to atone for the atrocious success of Titanic, the film that made him a Hollywood heartthrob. As in his portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Aviator, he plays Hoover as a driven and compulsive loner. It’s a well-crafted performance, but one too often sees the struts. Armie Hammer’s Clyde Tolson, in contrast, has a direct and natural charm, although the mask-like makeup poured on him as an older man all but throttles his expression. Naomi Watts ages more gracefully as Helen Gandy. Watts plays down the termagant qualities of her character, subtly modeling her as an enigma whose core may be a celibacy that, once a vocation for some, has gone so far out of fashion as to be all but incomprehensible today. Eastwood, certainly no prude, is old enough to remember something of this as an honorable if at times a desperately lonely condition. J. Edgar may look, from a modern perspective, like a sexual tragedy. But the relation between eroticism and power is a complex one, and Eastwood has teased out some of its more interesting threads.
As for Hoover’s public legacy, it is a far greater tragedy. We see Hoover at the beginning of his career, helping to arrange the deportation of an American citizen, the anarchist Emma Goldman, despite the lack of a provable offense against her. Today we have the spectacle of a president, Barack Obama, ordering the targeted assassination of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, without public proof of a crime or judicial process of any kind. Hoover is more responsible than any single figure for the chain of events that, over a century, has led us to this pass, and to the surveillance state that rules our lives. But that’s another film.