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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

At Last: The Real J Edgar Hoover Stands Up

Article first published as Movie Review: J. Edgar on Blogcritics

“To Mr Lawrence”

                                                                                  By John Milton,    

Lawrence, of virtuous father virtuous son,

Now that the fields are dank, and ways are mire,

       Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire

       Help waste a sullen day; what may be won

From the hard season gaining? Time will run

       On smoother, till Favonius re-inspire

       The frozen earth, and clothe in fresh attire

       The lily and rose, that neither sow'd nor spun.

What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice,

       Of Attic taste, with wine, whence we may rise

       To hear the lute well touch'd, or artful voice

Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air?

       He who of those delights can judge, and spare

       To interpose them oft, is not unwise.”


Hoover: Repressed Gay Ogre Or Astute Celibate Devoted to U.S. Security?

J Edgar  Hoover hated communists, blacks and Jews J.Edgar.Hooverand simply loathed Lithuanian-born Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman whom  he had deported to Russia in 1919 although she was a U.S. citizen.

Emma.GoldmanBut the two were curiously conjoined - both by American history and their polar-opposite politics: Goldman’s anarchism was inspired by the Chicago Haymarket Riots of 1886 while the future FBI chief’s understandably hysterical and pathological fear of domestic communism stemmed from the Cleveland, Ohio May Day Riots which happened shortly before he threw her out.

Hoover, then head of the U.S. Department of Justice General Intelligence Division, said of Goldman and her lover, Alexander Berkman that they were: “beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and their return to the community will result in undue harm."

The riots and Goldman’s deportation are among early scenes in J Edgar, the compelling, sometimes unbearably intimate and occasionally sympathetic portrait of Hoover drawn in  Clint Eastwood’s new film.

As I saw the movie in Israel before it opened in  the U.K.Leonardo.DiCaprio(J Edgar) and had read a reasonably positive review in the New York Times, I could not understand why it received no mention at The Golden Globe awards or even one Oscar nomination. Surely, I mused, both Eastwood’s direction and Leonardo DiCaprio’s extraordinary performance as Hoover deserved a prize, despite the film being overlong, some of the prosthetics poor and its non-linear approach often difficult to follow.

Then I discovered why it had been ignored: the majority of critics have denigrated it quite ruthlessly, so smothering it at birth. There has been scant, grudging  attention paid to how Eastwood coped with the sweep of almost 80 years of history, encompassing waves of massive social unrest, gangsterism, a world war, the incumbencies of eight  U.S. presidents – and how the development of forensics allowed Hoover to create a scientific crime-detection laboratory.

This showed him as a man a half-century before his time, such work resonating today, not only because of DNA profiling (genetic finger-printing) but in  arguments over the use of a digitised/biometric National Identity Register – which scheme has just been abandoned in the U.K while in Israel a biometric database of all Israeli citizens is presently under trial.

Four of us watched the film together in Haifa and all of us – three expat British citizens and one expat American - all agreed that we had learned as much about U.S. history as we had about a 'different' Hoover.

All of us had heard the bizarre stories of his homosexual leanings, cross-dressing antics and unwonted attachment to his mother. But none of us swung the personal axes wielded by the professional critics who have also viewed the film.

I contend that if people want an accurate chronological narrative, there are many good documentaries available on television or via the internet. Eastwood has given us a fine if flawed piece of art – not documented history.

The Hoover whom Clint Eastwood presents is not simply a repressed homosexual ogre with a Hitchcockian mother fixation. I believe the director – like me – sees him as an asexual, celibate being with a monkish devotion to his work and whose social release is in his platonic friendship with FBI Associate Director, Clyde Tolson ( Armie Hammer). Nor  am I the only one to compare their relationship to those of strictly heterosexual gentlemen of an earlier, more leisured age.

But Eastwood also shows us a man with the sort of acutely unhealthy and overlong grip on power which makes monsters of us all. Like many dictators, the historic Hoover attempted to massage the truth about himself - and like the Nazis he kept meticulous records. But he was cleverer than they. He ordered his devoted secretary, Helen  Gandy (Naomi Watts) to destroy his personal files when he died. Much of what (we think) we know about the private Hoover is speculation as scholars must rely on a few remaining misfiled papers for evidence.

Have Eastwood and DiCaprio helped the real Hoover to emerge? Yes. But there may be more to come.




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