Wednesday, November 09, 2011

"J. Edgar" is a compelling very personal biography of the famous FBI director

There is something that becomes apparent in any biography of a prominent but closeted (by force) gay person (of thought to have been gay).   The person (particularly when male) is unwilling to become part of the social colony around him (providing  most people with a two-way context for life-long marital sexual intercourse, producing children and connecting the generations): he may see it as humiliating, or simply irrelevant and unnecessary (for him). Then, he kibitzes, which is what may bring on so much enmity. He observes and writes about people, or perhaps investigates or even regulates them.  Or perhaps he innovates, trying ideas that everyone scorns, only to be accepted as commonplace a couple decades later.  We’ve seen that, for example, in films about Truman Capote,  Roy Cohn and Harvey Milk.

So it is with “J. Edgar”, the new biography of the notorious FBI director  J. Edgar Hoover (in the post, and preceding Justice Dept., for almost five decades), directed by Clint Eastwood, with screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”).  Leonardo Di Caprio really has become a grown man for this role (even more so than “Cobb” in “Inception”), but Armie Hammer makes his lifelong companion Clyde Tolson, seem truly likable. (Hammer had played the "Winklevi" in "Social Network", remember.)

Edgar was indeed dominated by his mother (Judi Dench), who late in the movie tells him “she’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil” (after he refused to dance with a woman at a party).   He is shown as living with his mother, to take care of her in later years, without any sense of shame that he didn’t have his own progeny.  The idea of antipathy to "normal" family formation comes up early, as Edgar's boss notes he seems to have no social life, and Edgar says that's true of many bureau agents!

He reacted to his social isolation by developing very moralistic ideas – as did I – and then implementing them on others when in a position of power.  (I was a “hard math teacher” for a couple years as a grad student, not afraid to give out F’s, or to catch someone cheating.)  Later he lectures his new recruits on the need to have both impeccable conduct and appearances – he fires one for having a mustache and orders others to buy new suits (because his mother had criticized his own clothes).  Pretty soon loyalty to the country became the highest possible virtue.

In fact, Clyde Tolson had not presented the ideal resume. For example, he had wanted to use a career in the FBI as a stepping stone to his own lucrative law practice – signs of disloyalty. But it’s obvious from the behavior and body language of both Clyde and Edgar that they are attracted to one another. Edgar has to rationalize breaking his rules to satisfy his attraction.  The film goes on to portray their relationship in suitably subtle fashion (dinner every day), with Tolson getting the number 2 position (probably help pander to anti-gay stereotypes of the era).  But eventually, they have a “fight” of sorts, over the relationship, after a day at the races on the Maryland eastern shore.  Still, "they" say, this is not a "gay film"; it's a film about "Secrets", like in the song.

There is something else about the nature of the “threat” that Edgar saw.  As early as 1919, there had occurred multiple bombings around the country attributed to Bolsheviks. Hoover, at 24, saw, probably correctly, than an indignant radical Left was capable of asymmetric attacks.  (In a novel manuscript from the 1980s, I presuppose guerilla attacks on the East Coast with WMD’s by Communists. The 1984 film “Red Dawn” had not done the threat justice.)  Later, by the 1930s, the threat was more just gangsterism, which could target people with kids.  The film documents the Lindberg case.

Hoover is shown as a technical innovator, having helped invent the card catalogue system for libraries (anticipating modern computer database management systems), and later fingerprinting, and other ways of collecting and classifying forensic evidence necessary for convictions.

The film was produced by Imagine Entertainment (not "Image") and Warner Brothers, which omitted its Casablanca theme.  The original music score was composed by Clint Eastwood himself, and has a theme that remotely resembles the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th.  He also using Bach Goldberg variations in the score.

The film goes back and forth in time, and is framed by Hoover (with DiCaprio heavily made up, as is Hammer to play the older Tolson) telling his story to a biographer (Ed Westwick).  Jeffrey Donovan is not so convincing as Bobby Kennedy, nor is Christopher Shyer as Richard Nixon.

The official site is here

Dustin Lance Black gives some brief remarks on YouTube, and says that Hoover truly believed in what he was doing, and couldn’t see when he slipped over into evil.  For, at a certain level, Hoover’s actions contributed to the mood of McCarthyism which haunted my own teen years and which also shaped my own paradoxical views.  The Closet could hold anything.


I saw the first show Wednesday afternoon, digital projection, at the AMC Georgetown, before a moderate (and mostly male) crowd.  It had premiered Tuesday night at the Newseum. The film is presented in 2.35:1 and the cinematography has a lot of sepia and muted colors. 

Pictures: Mine: The Newseum has an FBI exhibit that was moved from the FBI building after 9/11.  (The FBI Building is almost across the street from Landmark E Street theater in downtown DC.) 


There is a book by Frank Buttino from William Morrow, publishers, 1993, "A Special Agent: Gay and Inside the FBI", where the author describes meeting and shaking hands with J. Edgar Hoover and notes that Hoover held his hand longer than was normally appropriate.

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