After seeing Clint Eastwoodâ€™s excellent biopic, J.Edgar, I was reminded of Mark Anthonyâ€™s funeral oration in Shakespeareâ€™s Julius Caesar: â€œI come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.â€
With excellent reproductions of the era and the magnificent acting of Leonardo DiCaprio and a wonderful cast, Eastwood tells the story of J. Edgar Hoover, a sexually conflicted, complex, and single-minded man who was both extravagantly reviled and praised for founding, building and operating, with dictatorial efficiency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and forging it into a powerful arm of the Federal Government.
DiCaprio portrays J. Edgar from a superb script by Dustin Lance Black, which encapsulates the manâ€™s life from childhood to death. He is portrayed with pitch-perfect, warts-and-all exactitude as someone obsessed with fervent and often bigoted patriotic zeal, driven to heroic fantasies, often deliberately fictionalized to enhance his image and spur recruitment of a coterie of educated and motivated men, who walked in cult-like lock step to Hooverâ€™s institutional and personal commands.
Sometimes painful to watch as DiCaprio peels away the manâ€™s reserve and humanizes him in ways smalls and large, we see unfolding the maturing of a man who grows progressively more paranoid and powerful as he grows older. We see the influence of a dominant, much loved mother and a relationship between two men, Hoover and his longtime companion and assistant, Clyde Tolson, that is tender, loving and affectionate, long before such relationships became acceptable in the popular culture. The relationship avoids the question of sexual consummation, although it is without question a sincerely loving one, beyond even the traditional elements of strong male bonding.
Eastwood, whose right-of-center credentials and reputed total command and control over story and every other detail of movie making, does not spare Hoover in assessing his willingness to sacrifice ethics and morality to the cause of building his beloved FBI.
He does not avoid accusations of Hoover using blackmail tactics to retain his power over presidents and others in the power structure, especially in sexual matters. He illustrates Hooverâ€™s propensity to fictionalize his personal exploits, glorifying service to the FBI and projecting and often exaggerating the image of G-men, a euphemism for his band of agents, as upright, brave, courageous and heroic, fighting for God and country. Young boys were recruited to think of themselves as junior G-men and working for the FBI was portrayed as one of the great careers open to educated and dedicated young men.
He takes us through the early days of crime fighting before and during the Depression and wrecking havoc on gangsters during prohibition. He is shown obsessed by the communists and radicals who are attempting what he believes is a takeover of the United States, a very real threat during and after World War II, and does not shy away from Hooverâ€™s wariness of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. who he believed had radical motives, a position that did not win him many friends outside of the bureau and has, to some degree, diminished his reputation.
Still, the movie goes out of its way to make clear that he was not a racial bigot by using the device of having a black agent work with him on writing his memoirs, and the script calls for him to dub Senator McCarthy an â€œopportunist.â€
I lived in Washington for many years during Hooverâ€™s heyday. Seeing him and Tolson (a familiar pair) around town, and having met and befriended numerous FBI and ex-FBI men, my view about Hoover and the FBI he created is more or less the bottom line that I believe Eastwood intended when he created this movie. Having called Hoover to account for â€œthe badâ€ with eagle-eyed accuracy, he weaves into the story what can only be counted as â€œthe good.â€
Hoover was a motivational genius, a brilliant organizer who inspired loyalty and dedication from his underlings who worshiped him. Talk to any ex-FBI agent who worked on his watch and you will invariably get the same opinion. He established an FBI checking system that was as foolproof as possible to keep questionable people from serving in government, a system that, with some exceptions, was as thorough as possible and is still in operation today.
He established an FBI forensic capability second to none, and a fingerprinting system that is a crime fighting wonder. Yes, he was rigid, intolerant; often thin-skinned and egocentric. In his later years, the media pounded him with regularity, inspiring not only sharp criticism but outright hatred.
Some say he overstayed his office by years largely because he had the goods on those who made the decisions to keep him there. Maybe so.
But J.Edgar, the movie, is more than just a mere contrived biopic. There is something transcendent about it, something that can enhance our understanding about America and the people who wield power over our lives. It is worth the time to see it and ponder its lessons. Eastwood and his great cast have added some special insight into how a democracy blunders ahead, often with imperfect leaders who somehow rise above their flaws for the greater good of all of us.