Driving by the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building will never be the same again.
Last week’s release of the film “J. Edgar” adds a new chapter in the telling of the titan’s story. Directed by Clint Eastwood, it is a series of somewhat choppy narratives covering Hoover’s life, his relationship with his mother, the rise of the FBI, and somewhat surprisingly, his intimate life with Clyde Tolson.
Hoover in the modern mind is a quasi-evil genius who stayed too long at his post through a combination of hard work, guile and good old fashioned blackmail. Coming of age in a post-World War I America where radicalism and communism were briefly ascendant, he spent the rest of his life chasing the red scare long after it had faded to a faint shade of pink.
The film provides brief glimpses of Hoover as he learns the fine art of job security through the blackmail of Presidents and others using compromising information collected by FBI agents. The scenes depicting a showdown with Robert Kennedy over brother John’s recorded illicit liaisons are compelling. Hoover’s attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr., over hotel trysts, is vaguely presented as Hoover interprets King’s Civil Rights work through his own perpetually red-tinted glasses. Then, as now, politicians and leaders are vulnerable over their sexual appetites, as ironically, Hoover was, too.
Eastwood tells of the rise of the FBI through Hoover’s ability to influence Congress and to learn from his own mistakes. But, the Hoover we see is not at all likeable–he has many enemies and no friends, trusts no one, is famously insecure and expresses cruelty towards those who show him loyalty and affection.
Dame Judi Dench plays Hoover’s mother, the dominant figure in his life, urging him to greatness while simultaneously stoking his self-loathing over repressed homosexuality. We are led to believe that the athletic G-man puritan/ tough guy persona is a sub-conscious manifestation of Hoover’s physical desire and his need to prove both his masculinity and his maternal worthiness.
The Hoover/Tolson connection is often depicted with a combination of cynicism and sarcasm with sly whispered comments about cross-dressing. Humanity is nowhere in sight. Eastwood presents them as older men in love and you see them as two people deeply intertwined in a lifelong relationship. He shows us a glimpse of the poignancy and complexity of love stripped of the prejudice surrounding sexual orientation.
It is a moving depiction of a mature relationship, gay or straight. Armie Hammer plays Tolson and his expression of connection and loss is powerful. Who would have thought that “tough guy” Clint Eastwood would render up such an elegant ending especially given such unsympathetic characters? Or, perhaps that is the real magic of his work.
Is it Cinematic Art or American history?
Hard to tell, but worth it either way.