Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI for 48 years is the most interesting I have seen. Eastwood manages to hit the seam between the Hoover haters and the Hoover lovers, leaving neither camp pleased, which is a good thing. Set in the 1960’s the last decade of his tenure at the FBI, Hoover tells the story of his life to biographer. Eastwood uses this device to lead into a series of flashbacks that are artfully transitioned from the contemporary action. Several film critics have charged that the flashbacks are confusing, but I suspect they simply don’t know the history of the period. They aren’t confusing, are very stylish and shed light on the character of this enigmatic historical figure.
Eastwood wisely avoids wading into the swamp of whether Hoover’s lifelong friendship with his assistant, Clyde Tolson, had a sexual element, sticking pretty closely to the facts available and letting the viewers come to their own conclusions. This is also his approach to questions about Hoover’s use of bugs and wiretaps to get information on prominent politicians who might have sought to do him harm. He served at the pleasure of ten Presidents and kept files on all of them, lest any entertain a notion to fire him. When you consider that all of the Directors since Hoover have been either presidential lapdogs or they were fired, Hoover’s methods of maintaining the independence of his agency seem more justified.
Eastwood does take a bit of an editorial slant with regard to Hoover’s conviction that Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were subversive. The way it is shaped in the story makes it clear that Eastwood believes Hoover’s idea was wrong headed. While it is true that there were some old line communists associated with SCLC, they didn’t control the civil rights movement and MLK had to take his allies where he could find them. Hoover’s critics dwell on his pursuit of communists as though it was gratuitous. Yet KGB records released after the end of the Cold War revealed that many in CPUSA actually were acting either directly or indirectly as agents of the USSR. The FBI also infiltrated the German American Bund in the years leading up to World War II, so it was never a strictly right-left thing with Hoover.
Probably Hoover’s biggest single blind-spot in office was not recognizing the full extent of organized crime. He tended to see criminals in terms of the flamboyant bank robbers of the thirties rather than members of larger organizations, so the FBI investigations into this aspect of the underworld were haphazard. I think the fact that the secret presidential files were destroyed after his death commends him well. He only used them to maintain his independence from the politicians, not to cause harm or settle scores. Eastwood makes a point of emphasizing this fact in the film. All that being said, it is utterly impossible for someone to wield that much power for that long without it having a corrupting effect on him. In his case, I suspect it was a tendency to shade history to suit him and to see his view as the only possible view. But he was certainly not alone in that foible.
Overall, this is a pretty good movie. It is well acted by DiCaprio as Hoover and has a fine supporting cast. Clint Eastwood brings his usual classy and understated style to the film, refraining from preaching. If you watch this film, you won’t have wasted your time.