As befits a libertarian, Clint Eastwood is admirably suited to look at both sides of a controversial question.
Dirty Harry could be both a hearty conservative slap to the Warren Court and also the only thing between democracy and a group of vigilante fascist cops.
“J. Edgar,” released today, is no different.
But to gauge Eastwood’s achievement in examining a controversial figure, virtues as well as warts and all, one should look at previous cinematic portrayals of the FBI director. In “Chaplin,” Hoover is depicted as a prissy anti-communist who does not forget the silent film star slighting him back in the twenties. His decades-long vengeance is complete when Chaplin gives him the sword to fell the actor with, courtesy of Charlie’s peccadilloes.
“Citizen Cohn” played down the vengeance theme and instead portrayed the director, played by the very masculine Pat Hingle, as an avuncular figure. Hoover, a master of blackmail via wiretaps, has the tables turned on him because of his homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson. Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” was perhaps the most flagrant attempt to out Hoover. In the film, Hoover (Bob Hoskins) reveals his sexual preferences by having a servant boy orally remove a piece of fruit the director placed on his aged lips. But Stone, in true fashion, isn’t content to rest on this one controversy.
His Hoover is the closest thing we’ve had to that gay Nazi Ernst Roehm; in a scene with Nixon, he speaks of the “establishment fighting back,” promises to help Nixon win the presidency via his enemies lists, and thus exudes such evil that animals won’t come near him.
Eastwood humanizes the director, showing how such a figure was shaped by both his formative experience (the Palmer Raids of the 1920s) and his mother, whom he lived with until her death. As played by Judi Dench, she is a Mommie Dearest, demanding both subservience and a rigid morality impossible to fulfill. Crippled with guilt and an accompanying voyeurism, Hoover can experience love but never act on it.
Eastwood subtly accepts that Hoover was probably gay, activated by his lifelong friend and live-in companion, Clyde Tolson. Rather than hit the viewer over the head with Hoover’s predilections a la Stone, Eastwood very cleverly rigs the game. His Clyde Tolson doesn’t physically resemble the real life beetle-browed hair-receding figure; he instead casts Armie Hammer, an actor of golden boy handsomeness that recalls Jude Law in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (another figure pined after romantically by a man) shows audiences why Hoover would be attracted to Tolson.
But the attraction is only evident by the sweat on Hoover’s upper lip when meeting him, or in Eastwood’s camera angles of Hoover and Tolson in the elevator in which both look like they are laying side by side in bed. Eastwood also allows that there might have been actual terrorists in the sweeping deportations young Hoover made while apprenticing under the notorious A. Mitchell Palmer.
He also shows there was indeed a gangster threat in the ’30s as well as a communist one in the Cold War. Then Eastwood the civil libertarian kicks in, and he shows how Hoover’s dirt-digging and moral vanity marred how he viewed Martin Luther King and the peaceful sections of the anti-war movement.
All in all, “J. Edgar” is the fullest portrait of this character we have yet on film. An old saying is that it takes a paranoid to recognize a paranoid. But Eastwood’s film is so balanced that it should be amended to read it takes a libertarian to recognize a historical figure in all their complexity.