“J. Edgar”
“J. Edgar” is the kind of movie I was afraid it would be, which is why I had avoided seeing it in the first place. It would be like making a biopic of John F. Kennedy and spending most of the time talking about his clandestine affairs, and only waving at his personal charisma and his ground-breaking political career. Or making a biopic of Dwight Eisenhower and spending most of the time on his affair with his personal chauffer during World War II, and just waving at the fact that he was a 5-star general commanding the largest international armed forces the world had ever known. While not exactly untruthful, the perspective is highly prejudiced.
J. Edgar Hoover was hired by the Justice Department immediately after earning his law degree, and quickly rose within the Intelligence Division, part of the Bureau of Investigation, where he rose to Deputy Director before being appointed as Acting Director in 1924. The movie, rather than chronicling his obvious competency during this period, instead dwells on his fastidiousness about his personal appearance, and his personal rejection as an awkward suitor by Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who would instead become his lifelong secretary.
J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI to corral the notorious robber gangs of the 1930’s that so out-gunned, out-manned, and overwhelmed local law enforcement, but the movie concentrates on how Hoover claimed personal participation in making these arrests as a self-aggrandizing P.R. ploy.
Hoover was instrumental in organizing and standardizing fingerprint files which enabled interstate investigations, but the movie concentrates on how he fired particular agents capriciously because he didn’t like their looks, or suppressed the careers of agents he was jealous of, or exaggerated his investigative role in the famous Lindbergh kidnapping, where the national publicity enabled him to broaden the FBI’s investigative powers and make the Bureau answerable only the Justice Department (and not the President).
Hoover was commended by President Truman for his counter-espionage activities that made the U.S. remarkably free of sabotage during World War II, but the movie ignores this accomplishment and instead tells us how J. Edgar doted on his domineering mother, Anna Marie (Judi Dench), and hints at his repressed homosexuality, dismissing other rumors that he was romantically linked to certain female celebrities, such as Dorothy Lamour, while gleefully spreading rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian lovers.
During the post-War era, Hoover guided the FBI into a strong national crime-fighting force, actively combating the influence of organized crime syndicates, but the movie instead implies a homosexual relationship with a long-time associate and hints at a proclivity for cross-dressing.
Hoover was asked by the Justice Department, during the early McCarthy era, to compile a list of possible subversives, which the movie translates into J. Edgar making a permanent personal enemies list (to be destroyed by his ever-loyal secretary should anything happen to him), and then emphasizes his racist vendetta against Dr. Martin Luther King.
Hoover consistently fought for the autonomy of the FBI from outside political influences, insisting on promotion from within by merit only, resisting any political appointees, but the movie translates this into paranoia, autocracy, and increasing personal isolation. By the time this J. Edgar arrives at maturity, he looks like a caricature of Don Corleone, the fictitious “Godfather.”
No doubt an alternative biopic that would ignore all the salacious items and deal only with career accomplishments would be equally prejudicial, but this peculiarly biased version of “J. Edgar” is so unflattering that it looks like it is compiled by his own personal enemies list. Surely the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas