Roving thoughts and provocations

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Secrets of the Keeper of Secrets

Keith Bernstein/ Warner Bros. Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood is now eighty-one, a mellow age that tends to breed a gentle tolerance, if not sardonic forgiveness, for life’s brutes and rogues. This may explain the curious lack of menace in the J. Edgar Hoover he conjures up in J. Edgar, his low-voltage cinematic speculation on the character of America’s most famous cop. J. Edgar Hoover without menace is like Boris Karloff without bolts in his head. Not an old softie, to be sure, but Eastwood’s Hoover—though a sly, neurotic, and occasionally vicious bureaucrat—is scarcely a patch on the real-life Hoover who, as creator and director of the FBI from 1935 to 1972, once lurked in the nightmares of almost everyone with an interest in government and many more who simply went through life feeling guilty.

That was a Hoover of dark presence, a man so scary that even presidents did not dare to fire him, the keeper of secret files on tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans who were subjected to FBI surveillance because they were deemed to be not above suspicion. Suspicion of what? This was not always clear, but suspicion of unorthodox opinion was thought to be cause enough for opening a file.

Nobody could be sure of course. The FBI chief trafficked in fear, which flourishes best when the fog is thickest, the uncertainty deepest, and people who have always thought themselves above suspicion begin to wonder if perhaps there is some long forgotten incident in their distant past that might be dug up, exposing them to public humiliation, Congressional investigation, criminal indictment, destruction.

It is a rare life that hasn’t a few deplorable incidents in its chronicle. As Willie Stark observes in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, man is conceived in sin, born in corruption, and “passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud,” and when someone looks deep enough for dirt, “There is always something.”

Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images
J. Edgar Hoover being sworn in as a witness at the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee probe of the Harry Dexter White case, November 1953

Hoover’s favorite method of spreading terror seemed to involve exploiting the morbid American obsession with sex and politicians’ terror of being caught in unorthodox sexual conduct. The director let all Washington know that he was just as knowledgeable about who was doing what and with whom in bed as he was about who was taking orders from Moscow. Now and then Washington would fill with twitterings that the FBI had secret evidence of scandalously licentious goings-on of some political eminence or other, and indeed it often did, as we know from FBI leaks about Jack Kennedy’s liaison with the gangster Sam Giancana’s mistress, Judith Exner, and Martin Luther King’s relations with prostitutes. Politicians’ fear of Hoover’s secret files helps explain why they were so reluctant to replace him. Lyndon Johnson is said to have observed, “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.”

In J. Edgar, Eastwood and his screen writer, Dustin Lance Black, are not very interested in what many might see as a touch of the monster in Hoover’s character. The casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as the master bureaucrat obsessed with fear for the safety of the nation and monomaniacal in his devotion to the bureau is an obvious signal of their intention to make Hoover an appealing figure—a determination perhaps to be fair to a man who still has passionate admirers at least among right-wing Republican old-timers who think longingly of the late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

Dominating almost every scene, DiCaprio is an extremely attractive actor , but while perfectly capable of projecting Hoover’s occasionally nutty side, he has far too much leading-man charm to make an audience shudder. Though well into his thirties, he still has an unwrinkled, slightly boyish quality conducive to movie stardom, but he lacks the ominous weight of a hardened Washington operator sinister enough to scare presidents.

So we quickly sense that this movie wants us to like Hoover, at least a little bit. There are many scenes of his behaving despicably—laughing over purloined love letters exchanged between Eleanor Roosevelt and the lesbian Lorena Hickok, plotting to destroy Martin Luther King, crushing his own agents who threaten his monopoly on publicity—but DiCaprio’s incorruptible young face never lets us view Hoover as anything more appalling than a fragile and flawed, all–too-human sinner. This is a Hoover who may have plenty to answer for but, nevertheless, remains a good son to his mother. Yes, yes, we say at the end, he was a human being, after all.

Aren’t we all?

It would be misleading to suggest that J. Edgar is trying to pass either moral or political judgment on Hoover. Though two scenes express undisguised contempt for him, the film seems on balance to be as close to an objective look at a controversial public figure as we are likely to get in a medium that exists for popular fictional entertainment. Hoover’s love for his mother is amply represented in a few brief scenes with Judi Dench, a sparkling British actress costumed here to look antique and desiccated in a Hollywood style frequently used to identify slightly goofy mothers hell bent on pushing sons to greatness. Mother Hoover is permitted only a few lines to show that she is forceful and demanding as well as opposed to young men taking up the gay way of life, or becoming “a daffodil” as she puts it when striving for delicacy.

Keith Bernstein/ Warner Bros. Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson in J. Edgar

That Edgar may hanker for precisely this life style is a strong theme throughout the movie. We see him fall in love at first sight with Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer), the man the real Hoover appointed as the FBI’s associate director and with whom he shared a long and apparently happy life. To the end the two remain as close as any utterly devoted husband-and-wife team. A perfect marriage, we might assume, except that their physical contacts, if J. Edgar is to be believed, were confined to holding hands in the dark.

The facts in such matters are not easily authenticated, least of all when one of the partners was a master of secrecy, but the film is persuasive in presenting the relationship as a Platonic affair between a couple of overgrown boys. Eastwood and his script writer seem more concerned with getting inside Hoover’s head than with chasing down undiscoverable facts, and usually speculation proceeds from a base of verified information.

The Tolson-Hoover relationship, for example, has been extensively documented. All Washington knew that they lunched together regularly for years at Harvey’s restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. Newsreels of the 1930s and 1940s frequently showed them together at various race tracks. The Washington bureau of The New York Times, when I worked there, had a reporter whose duties included talking to Tolson when communication with Hoover was required, and no one doubted that Tolson spoke with the voice of Hoover.

Keith Bernstein/ Warner Bros. Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson in J. Edgar

I would be lying if I tried to suggest what the real Tolson was like. Very few reporters dealt with him and I did not share the privilege. Doubt I ever saw him except in pictures or as a silent figure sitting near Hoover at a Congressional hearing. Nor did I ever hear anyone in the press discuss him as a human specimen. But from all this J.Edgar creates a fictional Tolson to provide an occasional cruel judgment on Hoover’s character, as with a scene in which Tolson, having made a tender gesture toward Edgar and been crudely rejected, denounces him as “a scared, heartless, horrible little man.” In a concluding scene that precedes Hoover’s death, the fictional Tolson sums up with a speech full of accusations. All the old man’s claims about dangers he risked in running down murderous gangsters have been lies, Tolson declares. So his story of working closely with Charles Lindbergh in the famous kidnapping case—all a lie, he tells Hoover. Lindbergh in fact had treated him with contempt. That the real-life Tolson spoke these things to Hoover seems doubtful to me. Even the closest of marriages might no longer weather well once the prouder partner discovers that the weaker knows he is a phony.

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