The danger of rumor is that the truth matters so little. Even the innocent truth can be forever damaging if the context is changed. The world of men is easily subverted by muted conversation in quiet corridors.
Clint Eastwood’s latest film, J. Edgar, is an examination of the life of a man whose legacy is rooted in the careful application of rumor. Hoover was a man interested in facts and data collection, one who founded modern criminal-justice tactics, was moral to the core and saw danger at every corner. He collected information only for its usefulness to his cause. Through this collection, he managed to keep control of the agency he founded for nearly 38 years and through multiple administrations. He was undoubtedly a fascinating man. Oddly enough, Eastwood’s characterization of J. Edgar Hoover isn’t one of the shadowy government agent. Instead, he focuses largely on Hoover’s sexual preferences and relationship with Clyde Tolson, his right-hand man. But Hoover’s controversial secret isn’t as interesting as the powerful agency he created.
It was Hoover’s lack of a social life that led him to the position that made him famous. His idea of a date is to show off how quickly he can use a card catalogue. To J. Edgar, the world is a card catalogue, waiting to be sorted, filed and referenced at key moments. He is a powerful patriot, one who wants to protect his noble countrymen from the Bolsheviks and the subversives. Every crime scene contains vital clues that can lead to arrests and peace. He is certain of his judgments and strictly moralistic in his opinions. Every detail of a man is instantly perceived by Hoover.
This attention to detail and strict adherence to code were instrumental to the foundation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We follow Hoover and his agents through the “crime of the century” kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the arrests of bank robbers like Baby Face Nelson. We watch as Hoover collects blackmail materials on sitting presidents in order to hang on to his power. Through all of it, we get the impression that Hoover is genuinely trying to serve his country and maintain order. However, his strict codes of conduct and discipline leave little room for social change, which makes him label Martin Luther King, Jr. as a Communist agitator. Throughout the film, he is uncompromising and obsessive, traits that served him well earlier in his career. But as the world changes, Hoover doesn’t—and he must increasingly gather information to keep his worldview mainstream.
If the filmmakers had left the film at that, we would have something worthwhile. The drama of an absolutist struggling in a pluralistic world makes for great storytelling opportunities.
However, Eastwood spends too much time on the idea of a closeted gay man hiding himself from the world and those close to him. Hoover may very well have been gay. He may have had a lifelong relationship with Clyde Tolson. But it wasn’t central to his life. The idea here may have been to highlight the irony of a man who used the private sex lives of politicians as ammunition in his quest for power having his own sexual secret hidden in plain sight. The filmmakers may have been arguing that many of his actions and policies were directly influenced by his perception of homosexuality and his inability to admit his desires. These are certainly avenues worth pursuing. But if that were the case, the film does not do a good job of developing these ideas. It’s as if it combines two movies with different perspective. Neither was sufficiently developed, unfortunately.