Thursday, May 10, 2012

J. Edgar (Malpaso/Warner Bros., 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I showed Charles the 2011 biopic J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, which got released with some amount of ballyhoo last year — and sank without a trace at the box office. I thought it was an excellent movie — I generally have liked Eastwood’s films as director in which he has not also appeared as an actor, and this was no exception — though I can see why it got almost no traction commercially. First of all, virtually nobody in the movie audience of today either knows or cares who J. Edgar Hoover was — for someone who was part of American life for so long (he directed the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice — later known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI for short, after a 1935 bill passed Congress adding the F-word to the name — for an amazing 48 years, from his initial appointment in 1924 to his death in 1972) — and second, while the central issues raised by Hoover’s FBI tenure are still very much alive in the body politic, they’re hardly ever debated or discussed.

The ongoing debate in American history over the relative demands of liberty and security was definitively settled in favor of security almost as soon as the dust settled from the 9/11 attacks; though Hoover may have been dead for 29 years when the USA PATRIOT Act passed Congress, his spirit was definitely alive and well, and there’s a positively chilling moment early on in the movie in which Hoover, taking his secretary Helen Gandy on a date to the Library of Congress where he shows her how meticulously he has organized his card catalog, muses on the possibility of keeping a card file on every person living in the United States and collecting every possible scrap of information on them that would be useful in determining whether they would ever commit a crime or become a Left-wing activist (which, to Hoover, were pretty famously the same thing). It’s impossible to listen to this and not reflect on the fact that in the 40 years since Hoover’s death, computer technology has become so advanced that keeping a dossier on every American (indeed, on virtually every person in the world — at least every person in a country developed enough to have telephones) with the kind of derogatory information Hoover wanted encoded for all time has become entirely possible. We laugh today at the activities of the KGB, the East German Stasi and the other intelligence agencies of the Communist world that recorded every phone call made in their countries on the ground that they couldn’t possibly have had time to listen to every recording — the spy agencies in these countries were quite open about the domestic espionage; they wanted their people to live in constant fear that your recorded conversation would be the one they happened to listen to that day — but with computers and programs that scan written documents, Internet searches and recorded conversations for so-called “key words,” it is entirely possible to put a whole population under surveillance 24/7 and collect the information Hoover wanted and thought was essential to maintaining internal peace and social order.

It has its flaws; the central gimmick by which the aging Hoover is supposedly dictating his memoirs in the 1960’s to an FBI amanuensis variously referred to as Agent Smith (Ed Westwick) and Agent Garrison ignores the fact that Hoover had been consistently publishing books under his byline since Persons in Hiding in 1938 (the Web site has a copy sans dust jacket for $106.25 and a signed copy for $225), his account of the FBI’s famous war against the gangsters of the 1930’s (Paramount bought the movie rights and got four films out of Hoover’s narrative, and used the title Persons in Hiding for the first film ever made about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, with Patricia Morison as Bonnie and J. Carroll Naish as Clyde) and his most famous one, Masters of Deceit: What the Communist Bosses Are Doing to Bring America to Its Knees (1958). While there’s almost certain agreement under historians that Hoover didn’t write these books himself, there seems to be some dispute as to who did; most scholars credit them to Louis Nichols, the head of the FBI’s public relations department, but the Web site attributes Masters of Deceit to “Agent Fern Stukenbroeker, an FBI researcher on subversive groups employed in the Crime Records Division” — but the point is that Hoover was already a published author (or at least his name was) well before the 1960’s and he had already had plenty of experience recasting the history of himself and the FBI both to glorify his own and the Bureau’s reputation and to establish, to paraphrase Louis XIV, that “Le Bureau, c’est moi.

Also, while Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay is excellent in many respects — it hints at both personal and political motives for Hoover’s actions and attitudes (his screwed-up relationship with his mother, marvelously played by an almost unrecognizable Judi Dench, seems to be Black’s idea of Hoover’s “Rosebud,” and his participation in the raids ordered by Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer [Geoff Pierson], against foreign-born and in some cases American-born radicals in 1919-1920 to get them out of the country without any bothersome niceties like due process — which generally goes unmentioned by Hoover’s apologists — is a key part of Black’s view of the man in that it shows him as a hard-line Right-winger willing to use the full force of the federal government to suppress the Left from the outset of his career, not as someone who effectively fought crime in the 1930’s and then went off the rails faced with the Communist threat of the 1950’s) — it also drops a lot of hints that viewers unaware of the history of the period and some of the connections between the events he includes probably wouldn’t get. For example, the film shows Hoover and his assistant, companion and lover, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), enjoying the hospitality of the Del Mar racetrack (he was allowed to keep his winnings but his losses were quietly forgiven) and taking criticism from attorney general Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) for not using the power of the FBI against the Mafia, but you’d really have to be a hard-core student of the period to understand the connection: the Mafia was blackmailing Hoover over his relationship with Tolson (which seems surprisingly diffident and stiff-upper-lip in this film; much to Eastwood’s credit as a director, he doesn’t “de-Gay” Hoover the way a more homophobic director like Oliver Stone would have, but he also doesn’t have Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer slobber all over either) and his willingness to take favors from Mob-connected enterprises.

At the same time Black’s screenplay is understated and lets us discover for ourselves the connections between the events of Hoover’s time and the similar issues in our own without hammering them home in overly explicit speeches or situations. And Eastwood’s direction is superb, almost noir in its relentless darkness; as I’ve noted before, most actor-directors are good at getting fine, subtle performances from their casts (even actor-directors who as actors were unmitigated hams, like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles) but few (Stroheim and Welles are the only others I can think of) are such masters of visual atmosphere. We really get the impression that Hoover’s FBI was a zone of almost total isolation, not only from the rest of the government but from the rest of humanity; indeed, watching this film while I’m in the middle of reading Janet Reitman’s book Inside Scientology made it readily apparent how much Hoover’s FBI was like a cult, with an all-powerful dictatorial leader ordering his underlings to live up to his ideals not only professionally but even physically (in an early scene, shortly after he takes over the Bureau, he fires an agent for having a moustache — unlike most martinet bosses, he doesn’t even give the poor guy a chance to shave it off and keep his job!) and summarily getting rid of anybody else in the organization (like Melvin Purvis, the agent who actually led the attack that killed John Dillinger — Hoover’s attack on him was so relentless Purvis’s son wrote a book about it called Vendetta) who seemed a threat to his power or public standing.

At the same time it shows Hoover creating the so-called “secret files” with the assistance of Helen Gandy — whose relationship to him seems to confirm Nora Ephron’s comment about Rose Mary Woods: that the long-term secretaries to the powerful literally fell in love with their bosses, albeit in a non-sexual way, and gave them fanatical lifelong devotion — and using the sexual secrets of presidents, their spouses and their families to make sure he kept what he wanted, not only the directorship of the FBI but utterly unaccountable power. In many ways it’s ironic that this film was made at Warner Bros., of all studios, since it was Warners more than any other film company that contributed to Hoover’s propaganda campaign, which burnished his image to the point that even many liberals in the early 1950’s upheld Hoover as the responsible anti-Communist fighter in the government as compared to Joe McCarthy (whom Hoover denounces as an “opportunist” in this film’s dialogue, reflecting the distrust true believers generally have for those they perceive as camp followers). The film counterpoints two actual Warners movies from the 1930’s, The Public Enemy (1931) and G-Men (1935), as social indicators of how the Zeitgeist shifted from glorifying gangster heroes like the one James Cagney played in The Public Enemy to glorifying the FBI agents that went after them — like the one Cagney played in G-Men. Warners was also the studio that produced the 1960’s TV series The FBI (supposedly Hoover reviewed every script personally until he died while the show was still on the air) and made the film of Don Miller’s hagiographic history The FBI Story in 1958 (and to get the rights to The FBI Story and Hoover’s cooperation in making it, Warners also had to buy the movie rights to Masters of Deceit even though all Jack Warner’s production executives were personally aware that Hoover’s ghostwritten anti-Communist diatribe was unfilmable).

And J. Edgar is also beautifully acted; Leonardo DiCaprio’s (lack of) height makes him as suitable to play Hoover as he was unsuitable to play Howard Hughes in The Aviator, and he’s believable as both the utterly self-righteous public Hoover (for an actor to make so one-dimensional a character interesting is itself an achievement) and the pathetically twisted private Hoover (and though it’s a pretty manipulative bit of writing on Black’s part I loved the touch of Hoover listening to a sex tape of President Kennedy when he receives a phone call that the President has been shot and killed — and he still has the tape on in the background when he coldly and without any attempt to soften the blow calls Bobby Kennedy to break the news to him); though his hair is slicked-down instead of curly, DiCaprio otherwise looks astonishingly like Hoover and he really carries himself (which he didn’t in Titanic) as a man living in a different time from our own. Paradoxically, J. Edgar is too long (137 minutes) in some ways and too short in others — too long for an average moviegoer to sustain interest in a movie without caped crusaders from a comic book or spectacular CGI action scene, too short for screenwriter Black to connect the dots he leaves tantalizingly hanging in his script — but it’s an excellent film and an example of the finely honed serious movie there doesn’t seem to be much of a place for in today’s cinematic marketplace.