I had looked forward with considerable enthusiasm to J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's new biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Eastwood has made a couple of at least adequate historical films, including Invictus and especially Letters from Iwo Jima, which told the story of that battle from the Japanese point of view. I don't like to read reviews of movies I plan to see myself, and if you feel the same way and want to see it, you had better stop now. But it has huge problems. In particular, it shows how hard it is becoming to convey the world into which I was born in 1947--one that it some ways, sadly, seems to be lost beyond all recognition. I shall try to explain.
One would expect, of course, that the film would pay a good deal of attention to sexual issues. Hoover--the most powerful American ever who was actually born and grew up in Washington, D.C.--was indeed devoted to his mother and never married. Rumors about his sex life found their way into print even at the height of his power in the 1940s (just as they did, I have discovered, about Eleanor Roosevelt.) His long relationship with his assistant director Clyde Tolson was bound to play a big role in the movie, and so it did. (I personally thought, by the way, that the film's make-up artists did not put half as much work into the aging process of Tolson and Hoover's famous secretary Helen Gandy as they did into Hoover's own.) But Eastwood chose to make that relationship a real dramatic focus, complete with a violent lover's quarrel when Hoover announced that he was contemplating marriage--and there is no real basis for that, except his imagination. Hoover certainly does not seem to have been an active heterosexual and may well have been actively gay. That certainly brands him as a hypocrite, given that homosexuality was defined by Hoover and other security men in those days as a disqualification from government work. But for reasons that I hope to get across, I thought the emphasis on this was vastly disproportionate.
The movie is fairly accurate about the first ten or fifteen years of Hoover's directorate. He did, indeed, build up his reputation, and that of his agency, by focusing upon relatively small-time hoodlums like Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger. He was a clever publicist who knew how to craft statistics to his advantage, and he was morbidly suspicious of any FBI agent, like Melvin Purvis, who made a name for himself. He was also a petty tyrant who once transferred an agent from Washington to Butte, Montana because he saw a photograph of him wearing something other than the FBI regulation white shirt. But that is only part of the story.
On the other hand, the movie does not remotely do justice to the historical role Hoover played--which was not all negative by any means. Here I must confess a personal prejudice: I fell in love with the FBI while writing my book, The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy. The reason was quite simple: thanks to the JFK Records Act, I and my assistants read thousands of FBI documents, and the organization was a historian's dream. It had, as the documents make clear, one main mission: the acquisition of data. Agents were diligent, wrote clearly, and followed every lead opened up by one interview right into the next one. The Bureau treated information like holy writ: everyone who should know about something, did. Information was also distributed to other agencies. The data developed on various organized crime figures, to cite only one example, was invaluable, fascinating, and could be the basis for many books besides mine. And the agents were very rarely tendentious or judgmental, even though Hoover often was in his marginal notes. They simply reported, and if they wanted to make clear that they didn't believe a certain witness they were quite clever at giving convincing reasons for not doing so, such as the opinions of the witnesses' friends and associates. The CIA, on the other hand, is a historian's nightmare. In that organization things were put on paper only when absolutely necessary, different parts of the agency kept secrets from each other, and what went on paper was often designed to conceal, rather than reveal, the truth.
The point is that Hoover must have had a great deal to do with creating that organization. The only hint one is given of that in the movie is his insistence, upon taking over in the 1920s, that agents be college graduates of good character and that they pay careful attention to their personal appearance and behavior. There is no hint of his heavy reliance on Jesuit schools as training grounds for his agents, a practice which paid off in spades. Hoover knew how easy it was for law enforcement agents to be corrupted, and he wanted the bureau to be different. That was one reason he stayed away from organized crime until the late 1950s. He feared that agents who began investigating it would be corrupted, and sadly, several amazing scandals in recent decades, most notably in Boston, have proven him right. Hoover certainly contributed to anti-Communist hysteria in the McCarthy years, and probably fed McCarthy a good deal of information, but his organization also uncovered quite a few genuine Communist spies. It also uncovered some massive white collar crimes, such as the GE-Westinghouse violations of antitrust laws in the 1950s. Hoover did not remain at his job for almost half a century merely because Presidents were afraid to remove him--although they surely were.
And indeed, Hoover's relations with Presidents--and especially the Kennedys, about which I know the most--were a great deal more complex than the film lets on. To begin with, Robert Kennedy liked to claim that it wasn't until he became Attorney General that Hoover got interested in organized crime at all--but that, I found, was not true. The famous Appalachin conclave of mobsters in late 1957 genuinely got Hoover's attention, and by 1960 he had a top hoodlum program and had transferred much of the FBI's intelligence capability, including wiretaps, to mobsters like Sam Giancana, whose romantic exploits were put on FBI tape several years' prior to those of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ample evidence indicates that Robert Kennedy was all in favor of such wiretaps--which could only be used for intelligence, not for evidence in court. More to the point, studies of RFK at Justice have shown that he was just as concerned as Hoover about Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King's friend and adviser with Communist ties, and that he clearly fully approved the tap on him. The memos of conversations between Hoover and RFK which I read having to do with organized crime suggested that they were working together enthusiastically on the problem. In the most notable, they shared their shock that the CIA had hired one of their targets, Sam Giancana, to assassinate Castro.
The Bureau under Hoover went wrong in the 1950s when it went beyond investigation to counterintelligence, specifically the COINTELPRO operation designed to disrupt and discredit organizations deemed hostile to the United States. Initially its targets were the Communist Party of the United States, the Socialist Workers' Party, and other front organizations--including, I discovered, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. (I am convinced, as I wrote in The Road to Dallas, that Lee Harvey Oswald's fake New Orleans chapter of that organization was part of COINTELPRO, although, like much of that program, it was not run directly by the FBI, but by one of several private anti-Communist groups.) Then in the 1960s Hoover extended it to much of the Civil Rights movement and to the New Left. All of this could have opened up vast dramatic possibilities for Eastwood, all the more so since both Presidents Johnson and Nixon suspected the New Left just as much as Hoover did, but all we get from Eastwood is the impression that Hoover was running the campaign against King all by himself. In fact his assistant directors were all devoted acolytes--they could hardly have been otherwise--while some field agents had been quite skeptical about him.
Whatever Hoover's sexual preference, the great dramas of his life were not personal: they were bureaucratic. He hated anything that threatened to impinge upon his authority and feuded with the CIA, local police forces, and, when it tried to reduce his authority, the White House. He carefully cultivated the Congress. He was devoted to his job, and I know of no evidence that he ever agonized about anything he did in the way that Eastwood and DiCaprio repeatedly showing him doing. He was not an introspective man. And this leads me, finally, to my biggest point.
I have now been studying some of Hoover's contemporaries, including FDR and his main lieutenants, for several years. Yes, some of them, including FDR, had active and interesting personal lives--but all of them were devoted to their jobs in ways that few senior officials, today, seem to be. They did extraordinary things, for good or ill, and they deserve to be known for those things. Our own politics and government are now so dominated by spin, and the whole process of government has come under such ceaseless attack for 40 years now, that even a filmmaker like Eastwood, who is more than ten years older than I am, can't even imagine what public servants in those days were like--or perhaps knows that he couldn't get a true portrait onto the screen. The men of that era knew how to project self-confidence and authority, and no one did that better than Hoover. DiCaprio doesn't really even try.
Eastwood and his team were lazy. When Dallas calls Hoover to tell him that the President has been shot, Special Agent Shanklin claims that no one knows about it. In actual fact the shooting was on the AP wire in less than a minute. It then shows him calling Robert Kennedy, but it shows RFK taking the call alone in his office, when he was actually in the midst of a day-long meeting of his organized crime team at his home, Hickory Hill. The movie, in short, suffers not only from historical inaccuracy and from poorly drawn portraits, but from the great disease of our time. It doesn't take government seriously.
p.s. This morning's column by Maureen Dowd makes it clear that these aspects were mainly the responsibility of Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter, a Gen Xer who also wrote Milk. Black struggled with his own sexuality in his youth--he was the kind of boy we see calling Milk for emotional support during that excellent movie. Black was a lot younger than Milk, but he could understand Milk's world. He couldn't understand Hoover's.