"J. Edgar" Fails to Deliver the Historical Goods

Culture Watch


Aaron J. Stockham received his PhD from Marquette University in 2005. His PhD dissertation was entitled "Lack of Oversight: The Relationship between Congress and the FBI, 1907-1975." He is the history department chair at The Waterford School in Sandy, UT.

With the holiday season approaching, many find time to head to their local cinema.  One choice filmgoers have this year is the Clint Eastwood-directed biopic J. Edgar, written by Dustin Lance Black (who also wrote the critically acclaimed Milk) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.  As a historian of the FBI, I was certainly intrigued by what the film got right.  While critics have their own criteria judging a film, I was more interested in the film's portrayal of the facts behind the larger-than-life director of the FBI.  As one might expect of a film about such a complex figure, the Hollywood Hoover tends to simplify and condense his actions.  The film, ultimately, is basically accurate in showing the audience what Hoover did but does not fully explore the motivations behind those actions.

At its heart, J. Edgar portrays Hoover as the man who successfully integrated scientific processes into law enforcement investigations.  Using the Lindbergh kidnapping as a centerpiece, Hoover transforms a Bureau smoking lounge into a scientific laboratory with dedicated, if eccentric, scientists working around the clock to solve the “crime of the century.”  Facing down all detractors, Hoover eventually catches Bruno Hauptmann through dedication and scientific analysis. There is no doubt, from the historical record, that Hoover was instrumental in creating the FBI's scientific reputation.  Before others in the United States, Hoover saw the value of finger prints, blood typing, and handwriting analysis.  As a central theme of the film, this rings true.

More problematic is the controversial decision of the writer and director to focus much of the film on Hoover's supposed homosexuality. DiCaprio portrays a closeted, asexual homosexual who cannot come to grips with his feelings.  Instead of pursuing a sexual relationship with his longtime confidant, Associate Director Clyde Tolson, they take vacations together, shop for the finest clothes, and dine together daily.  Partly, according to the film, this hesitancy stems from Hoover's relationship with his mother, a domineering woman who pushed Hoover to greatness.  In the midst of his struggle with his sexuality, Hoover's mother tells him that she'd rather have a dead son than a “daffodil.”  Black has stated he envisioned Hoover as incapable of filling his life with love because of the general homophobia of the times.  Instead, the power and the secrets he gathered filled that void, imprisoning Hoover as those two intertwined.

The problem with this portrayal, from a historical standpoint, is the complete lack of evidence about Hoover's sexuality. The film seems to play to the stereotypes about Hoover's sexuality, including a scene which hints at Hoover's reputation as a cross-dresser.  After his mother's death, Hoover puts on her jewelry and dress before sinking to the floor and weeping.  We also see Hoover put his hand on Tolson's and, after a fight and a kiss with Tolson at a California hotel, Hoover warns him to never do that again but, after Tolson leaves the room, privately states his love.  Importantly, the film never tries to show Hoover's actions as a result of his sexuality.  Instead, he is a complex and conflicted man with a desire to maintain any power he gains.

Beyond the lack of evidence of his sexuality, the film neglects to cover the FBI's sordid history investigating gays. Beginning in 1937 and continuing until 1977, the FBI investigated gays as potential security risks who could be blackmailed.  Numerous men and women were removed from their government and non-government positions because of the information Hoover's bureau dug up.  Only Communists were more systematically investigated by the FBI.  In a forthcoming book, Douglas Charles explores these investigations more thoroughly.

In discussing other key events in Hoover's history, the film covers the basics well, though some of the details are compressed and simplified.  There are hints to the investigation of John F. Kennedy's affair with Inga Arvad, a suspected (though never proved) Nazi spy.  The film has Hoover informing the president's brother, Robert, that he has such information, something Hoover never did.  It also portrays the well-known feud between Hoover and Martin Luther King, going so far as to show Hoover writing a letter suggesting King commit suicide before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.  While such a letter was written, Hoover almost certainly delegated it to others within the Bureau.  There is also a scene where Hoover is questioned by Senator McClellan in a budget hearing, with McClellan pointedly questioning Hoover's qualifications and suggesting that a man who has never arrested anyone has no business being the nation's “top cop.”  The film portrays Hoover fuming silently at the upbraiding and then leaping into action to catch notorious gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis.  While Hoover certainly did seek to establish his bona fides by being on the scene when Karpis was caught, Hoover did not let McClellan's statement go unchallenged.  He told the senator that the reason neither he nor his agents had arrested anyone was because Congress had not given them the power to arrest.  In that sense, the actual Hoover was much more active in his own defense than his cinematic counterpart.

J. Edgar has the difficult, probably impossible, task of portraying a complex figure in a limited timeframe.  To accomplish this, it tends to simplify and compress the historical record to tell a compelling story.  As a movie-goer, I certainly appreciated the efforts made by those involved.  As a historian of the Bureau, I wanted to see more exploration of the reasons behind Hoover's actions and a clearer portrayal of what the evidence says about Hoover.  Painting him as a closeted momma's boy may be the best way to sell tickets, but it certainly is not based on the evidence.  In that regard, it left this viewer wanting more.

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