I strongly recommend J. Edgar, which is a very interesting look at the life and career of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Directed by the ageless Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the film focuses heavily on Hoover’s close relationship with his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson, and suggests that the relationship went beyond friendship to a largely unrequited romance. While many have speculated on Hoover’s sexuality and while the true nature of the Hoover/Tolson relationship can never truly be known, J. Edgar provides a fairly accurate look at the public aspects of his career.
The film starts with Hoover’s pre-FBI role as young government agent involved in the 1919-20 Palmer Raids, which was an effort to root out domestic communism after the end of World War I. As the movie shows, it was prompted by a bombing campaign against several public officials that was blamed on American Communists. The Justice Department, led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, engaged in extreme and legally questionable attempts to stop what they saw as a conspiracy against the country, deporting many radicals despite the fact they had no criminal record. The Palmer Raids are often referred to as the First Red Scare and have been largely overshadowed by the Second Red Scare, led by Joe McCarthy in the 1950s
The movie then focuses on Hoover’s attempts to build the FBI into a modern crime-solving agency, with echoes of CSI techniques, which then included finger-printing and early expert testimony. He used the gangster activity of the 1930s to leverage a greater federal role in crime policy, an issue which had traditionally been left to state and local governments. Some of these events, like the FBI’s response to the bank robbery campaign of John Dillinger, were previously depicted in the 2009 film Public Enemies. The hysteria over the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the eventual trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the crime, also led to greater power and prestige for the FBI.
During the film, these events are juxtaposed with an older Hoover’s obsession with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1960s. J. Edgar shows Hoover obtaining Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s acquiescence to the wiretapping of Dr. King by implicitly threatening RFK with material documenting President Kennedy’s affair with a woman from behind the Iron Curtain. It also shows Hoover dictating a letter to accompany a tape recording of one of King’s affairs; the combination seemed intended to compel King to commit suicide. In reality, William Sullivan, an Assistant FBI Director, composed the letter. Still, the basic thrust of this section of the film is accurate, even if all the details are not.
At the end of the film, Hoover meets with a recently-elected Richard Nixon and tells Tolson that the new president wants greater control over the FBI and that Nixon will create his own apparatus if he does not cooperate. Though I don’t believe there is evidence of such awareness on the part of Hoover, it dovetails with the historical record. Nixon wanted the FBI to do his bidding with regard to monitoring his political enemies and when Hoover refused, he moved to create his own “Plumbers” who would work to investigate leaks and gather intelligence against his political opponents. The break-in at the Watergate which, of course, led to Nixon’s downfall, was the most famous act of the Plumbers.
Of course, time limitations forced Eastwood and the writers to neglect aspects of Hoover’s career. Largely omitted was Hoover’s central role in the Second Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s. By 1960, because of his infiltration campaigns, a majority of the members of the American Communist Party were actually FBI informants! As the film shows, Hoover remained obsessed with domestic communists long after they were a significant social and political force.
In addition to his persecution of King, Hoover actively opposed the civil rights movement for a half-century, harassing a series of black leaders and organizations, from Marcus Garvey in the 1920s and continuing with the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to disrupt the Black Panthers and other black nationalist groups during the late 1960s. Though Hoover was often eager to extend the FBI’s influence, he refused to provide any protection to civil rights workers operating in the Deep South in the 1960s. Indeed, the FBI did not even open an office in Mississippi until after the “Mississippi Burning” killings of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney in the summer of 1964. A greater FBI presence might have prevented their murders as well as some of the other acts of white terrorism in the Deep South. Hoover, though, did eventually use the same tactics he used against the Communist Party to weaken the Klan.
All in all, J. Edgar is an interesting look at a complex and important historical figure and is a relatively accurate film. For a change of pace, I am now going to see the Muppets!