J. Edgar Hoover hated communists, Blacks, and Jews and simply loathed Lithuanian-born Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman, whom he had deported to Russia in 1919, although she was a U.S. citizen. But the two were curiously conjoined; both by American history and their polar-opposite politics; Goldman’s anarchism was inspired by the Chicago Haymarket Riots of 1886, while the future FBI chief’s understandably hysterical fear of domestic communism stemmed from the Cleveland, Ohio May Day Riots which happened shortly before he threw her out. Hoover, then head of the U.S. Department of Justice General Intelligence Division, said of Goldman and her lover, Alexander Berkman, that they were, “Beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and return to the community will result in undue harm.”
The riots and Goldman’s deportation are among early scenes in J. Edgar, the compelling, sometimes unbearably intimate and occasionally sympathetic portrait of Hoover drawn in Clint Eastwood’s new film.
As I saw the movie in Israel before it opened in the U.K. and had read a reasonably positive review in The New York Times, I could not understand why it received no mention at the Golden Globe awards nor even one Oscar nomination. Surely, I mused, both Eastwood’s direction and Leonardo DiCaprio’s extraordinary performance as Hoover deserved a prize, despite the film being overlong, some of the prosthetics poor, and its non-linear approach often difficult to follow.
Then I discovered why it had been ignored: the majority of critics have denigrated it quite ruthlessly, so smothering it at birth. There has been only scant, grudging attention paid to how Eastwood coped with the sweep of almost 80 years of history, encompassing waves of massive social unrest, gangsterism, a world war, the incumbencies of eight U.S. presidents, and how the development of forensics allowed Hoover to create a scientific crime detection laboratory. This showed him as a man a half century before his time, such work resonating today, not only because of DNA profiling (genetic fingerprinting) but in arguments over the use of a digitised/biometric National Identity Register, which scheme has just been abandoned in the U.K, while in Israel a biometric database of all Israeli citizens is presently under trial.
Four of us watched the film together in Haifa and all of us, three expat British citizens and one expat American, all agreed that we had learned as much about U.S. history as we had about a “different” Hoover. All of us had heard the bizarre stories of his supposed homosexual leanings, cross-dressing antics, and unwonted attachment to his mother. But none of us swung the personal axes wielded by the professional critics who have also viewed the film.
I contend that if people want an accurate, chronological narrative, there are many good documentaries available on television or via the internet. Eastwood has given us a fine, if flawed, piece of art, not just documented history.
The Hoover whom Clint Eastwood presents is not simply a repressed homosexual ogre with a Hitchcockian mother fixation. I believe the director, like me, sees him as an asexual, celibate being with a monkish devotion to his work and whose social release is in his platonic friendship with FBI Associate Director, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Nor am I the only one to compare their relationship with those of strictly heterosexual gentlemen of an earlier, more leisured age.
But Eastwood also shows us a man with the sort of chronically unhealthy and overlong grip on power which makes monsters of us all. Like many dictators, the historic Hoover attempted to massage the truth about himself; and like the Nazis, he kept meticulous records. But he was cleverer than they. He ordered his devoted secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) to destroy his personal files when he died. Much of what we (think) we know about the private Hoover is speculation, as scholars must rely on a few remaining misfiled papers for evidence.
Have Eastwood and DiCaprio helped the real Hoover to emerge? Yes. But there may be more to come.