Clint Eastwood’s newest film, J. Edgar, written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the legendary J. Edgar Hoover, aspires to be a sympathetic, humanizing character study of Hoover’s life and a warning against paranoid power-mongering disguised behind the call of patriotism. Though other critics seem to feel differently, I was never induced into any form of understanding or identification with Hoover. He began and remained a priggish egomaniac, too lost within his own neuroses and quest for power to understand the people who surrounded him. He is berated and controlled by his mother (Judi Dench) far into his adulthood and seeks not to relate but rather to berate and control those who surround him.
In one of the earlier scenes of the film, Hoover takes secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) on a date to the Library of Congress to show her the card catalogue system he devised to find books quicker and more efficiently. He expresses the desire to use fingerprints to organize the United States population in the same way. Reducing humanity to simple data to gain control is the cornerstone of his political and private philosophy. The enemy—initially defined as radicals and Bolsheviks—progresses to include anyone Hoover deems to be a threat to himself, which he equates with being a threat to America itself. Due to his central role in the rebirth of the FBI, he is unable to separate his own reputation, desires, and fears from that of the bureau. This distinction between the man and the organization is clearer to the filmmakers, but it also results in one of my fundamental problems with the film.
By spending so much time examining the inner turmoil and weakness of Hoover’s character, the film seems to take an apologetic stance towards the government’s gross abuses of power and privacy violations. J. Edgar creates and sustains the belief that the illegal wiretappings, blackmail, and lies that occurred are not endemic to the FBI, politics, or the White House, but rather the result of a delusional, sexually repressed individual. Ultimately the fault lies, as often occurs in uninspired analyses, with the mother. She is given the credit for destroying Hoover’s confidence, ability to relate to people, and sense of self. The weapons of patriarchy are preserved at the expense of the matriarchy.
The structures Hoover left behind—finger printing, forensic evidence, the right of the FBI to carry weapons and make arrests—are seen as positive improvements. Only his anxiety-produced corruption (blamed on his mother’s overly strong presence in his life) is negative. Where the film had the profound ability to critique the repressive and regulatory systems of government as fundamentally dependent upon the reduction of humans, foreign and citizen alike, to data controlled through privacy invasion, it shirks this unsettling message. Instead, we are reassured that the only abuses were a result of Hoover’s own insecurities and, therefore, not symptomatic of the system as a whole. Americans can thus leave the theaters warm with the knowledge that the structures of power mean them no harm.
As an attempt to humanize J. Edgar Hoover the film fails. As an indictment against the corrupting effects of power, it fails. However, as a potential reflection on the legendary personage of Clint Eastwood himself, it becomes fairly fascinating. Like the Hoover figure painted in this film, Eastwood is an old man attempting to come to terms with his life in the public eye. J. Edgar takes time to examine the ways that the image Hoover presented to the public—that of a tough man respected by the powerful and feared by the wicked—was far removed from the realities of his life as he lived it. He creates a legend around himself and, like Eastwood, in many ways comes to define America to Americans. He is a figure of the law at the same moment that he skirts and bends it; he attempts to embody the gun-toting idol of masculinity but cannot achieve the heterosexuality that, his mother coldly assures him, is the essential element of self-worth. Eastwood’s latest films are a fairly transparent attempt for him to come to terms with his violent, hyper-masculine image and his old age. In the end, J. Edgar has more to say about Clint Eastwood than it does about the FBI or its notorious leader.