“J. Edgar” (A Nickell-odeon Review)

December 5, 2011

Let me confess at the outset that my response to Clint Eastwood’s new biopic about Federal Bureau of Investigation founder J. Edgar Hoover is necessarily colored by my own personal encounters with the man. Actually, there were two J. Edgars.

The first sent me a letter as a boy, congratulating me on the acceptance by the FBI of five correctly executed fingerprint cards (one mine), thus fulfilling a requirement for the Boy Scout merit badge in Fingerprinting. This was the Hoover who had created the FBI as an independent agency—staffed by educated, trained “G-Men”—and with it the world’s greatest crime laboratory, fingerprint data base, and law-enforcement training academy. J. Edgar effectively presents this Hoover, ably played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whom we watch solve the “crime of the century,” the Lindbergh Kidnapping.

The second Hoover, or at least his FBI, pursued me as a federal fugitive—appropriately enough since I was living as a draft resister in Canada, opposed to the Vietnam War. However, the FBI deceptively suggested to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that I might’ve entered their country illegally, and, in an act that still offends me for its political overkill, sent agents to look for me at my grandfather’s funeral. Here is the Hoover who used deceptive and fascist techniques against political leftists, notably the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

This is the same Hoover who had become so jealous over the fame accorded agent Melvin Purvis—who brought down such gangsters as John Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd—that he mistreated him until he resigned. Next, Hoover also effectively torpedoed the ex-agent’s own nascent private detective agency. Then he responded to Purvis’ autobiography with a ghost-written one of his own that falsely altered Purvis’ resignation to a “termination with prejudice.” Purvis is only briefly mentioned in J. Edgar.

He actually went on to serve as an OSS agent in Europe (working under Hoover’s nemesis William J. Donovan), but in 1960, when Purvis learned he had terminal cancer, he committed suicide with a pistol given him on retirement by his admiring fellow agents. (In research I did some years ago on Purvis, I not only visited his grave and talked with his friends and his son Alston, but I held in my hand the bullet that passed through Purvis’ head.) Hoover went on to try to eradicate even the memory of Melvin Purvis.

It is this manically obsessive, vindictive, two-faced Hoover that J. Edgar‘s portrait fails to quite capture—at least for me. Yes, his unethical, even illegal sneakiness, his dirty files, his veiled blackmailing of presidents are all there. Yet, ultimately DiCaprio does not become this Hoover—in the way that, say, Hilary Swank became Amelia Earhart (in Amelia 2009). Something is missing, and I suggest it is not really DiCaprio’s fault. Rather it is attributable to the movie’s almost too humanizing portrayal, including its dwelling on the supposed in-the-closet gay relationship of Hoover and his constant companion Clyde Tolson, a portrayal flawed by fictional episodes and the erroneously presented long-continued influence of Hoover’s mother who actually died in 1938—among other diversions and distortions.

Still J. Edgar is a very good movie that reaches far and accomplishes much. DiCaprio may yet be nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor.

Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)

Three Nickels