J Edgar -- Reflections on a Movie
I'm not a movie critic, though my son has the makings of one (film school will do that to you), but I I thought I might offer some reflections on the newly released movie J. Edgar. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the famous and perhaps infamous founding director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation this is an intriguing look at one of America's more complicated characters.
Cheryl and I took it in on Friday afternoon. It may have been the time of day, but we were among the youngest members of the audience. I couldn't help but wonder whether those a generation younger than me would know much about Hoover. He died while still serving as the Director of the FBI while I was still in elementary school, early in the Nixon Administration.
It's a well-written, well-directed, and well-acted film. It uses a first person narrative style that shifts from the end of Hoover's life to his memories of past events, starting with his rise to prominence after a 1919 allegedly Bolshevik bombing of the home of the Attorney General, in whose office he served. His fervor for pursuing Communists after that moment led to his involvement in forming what would become the FBI. In time the focus shifted from the Communist threat to organized crime, but Hoover always had what he perceived to be a communist threat in the back of his mind, and he believed, or so the movie suggests, that he was primarily responsible for suppressing the threat.
The movie explores a number of areas of Hoover's complicated life, ranging from his keeping of secret files on his perceived enemies, as well as those of political prominence. With these files he was able to not only keep his job and build the agency, but rise to immense power. Who would oppose such a person who might have secret files? There is also the relationship of his proud but controlling mother, whom he sought to please. There is also the issue of Hoover's sexual orientation, which includes his long time friendship with Clyde Tolson, who was his closest aid, friend, and perhaps more. It is only one of several threads, but it's an important one. It raises important questions about the dangers of being closeted.
The movie raises important questions about power, sexuality, fear, and corruption. Today the FBI goes through Directors rather rapidly, but Hoover was able to remain its head from the agency's beginning to the day of his death. Throughout its history it has done good things, and has pioneered forensic science, but there is also a dark side to it -- and a warning about the need for accountability.
I won't tell any more, but even if you're not old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover, this might be a movie you'll want to see.