Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Goods on J. Edgar Hoover, #2


OK, you can exhale, here it is.  My reading on the heavily ballyhooed J. Edgar film out of the Clint Eastwood monolith.  Saw it last night, the first screening once it was released around here.

I guess you'd have to call my verdict mixed.  What I liked best was the effort by the producers to deal with Hoover's life in a serious manner, not present a Hollywood caricature of him solely as a cross-dressing sex freak with a machine-gun delivery obsessed with hunting down nonexistent Communists and making Martin Luther King's life as ugly as possible. Throughout my career I have known well hundreds of FBI veterans, competent and dedicated people, lawyers usually, and I have never known any of them to bad-mouth their controversial founder.  Researching Bobby and J. Edgar I spent days at a time with insiders from Hoover's inner directorate, from Deke DeLoach to Courtney Evans to Ray Wannell.  The picture I got from them was of a frequently troubled boss utterly dedicated to his organization and its men, something of a pushover, who deployed associate director Clyde Tolson to crack the whip or fire agents when Hoover couldn't find it in himself to bear down too hard.  At least a little of this comes over in this movie.

What I liked least was the structure of the movie itself.  It really is hard not to suspect that the producers were overtaken by their release date, and picked whatever had any dramatic coherence off the cutting room floor and spliced it in willy-nilly.  Much of the detail is sloppily researched. An extended takeout on the Lindberg kidnapping in the thirties is interrupted by a face-off between Hoover and Attorney General Robert Kennedy the summer of 1963, during which Hoover pushes paperwork at the startled Kennedy confirming evidence of a liaison in California between JFK and an East German hooker under the control of the Stasi.  (This actually happened, although not in California, and it was Bobby who went to Hoover over the matter to get the FBI director to use his enormous clout with Congress to head off a Senate investigation of the president -- conf. Bobby and J. Edgar.)

In the film, once the yelling subsides, the entire incident is left to hang there and the action returns to the thirties and the apprehension of Bruno Hauptmann, the alleged Lindberg kidnapper.  The uneven adoption of a variety of cinema-verite and arbitrary docudrama techniques, stitched together by voice-over, helps confuse the proceedings. This sort of chronological jumping around happens repeatedly; for somebody unfamiliar with at least the outlines of Hoover's career the result has to be gathering disorientation.

What holds the film together is the progression of the inchoate love affair between Hoover and Clyde Tolson.  This is nicely handled.  How far the two of them went is still a matter of dispute; the scene in which Hoover blurts out that he has been going to bed with Dorothy Lamour in Los Angeles was born and died, I suspect, in the screenwriter's imagination.  Forever a little panicked about Hoover's propensity for blackmail, Bob Kennedy assigned the head of his Organized Crime Section, William Hundley, to bug Hoover's home and office and catch him off base.  "We tried to prove that Hoover was homosexual," Hundley told me.  "That was all bullshit.  You can never be sure, you know what I mean, but I think he was some sort of a eunuch."

Hoover's performance added up to a lot more that a chronic outbreak of right-wing phobias.  When heavy-industry instigators behind the Liberty League and the German-American Bund approached Major General Smedley Darlington Butler to lead a coup against Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover had his people infiltrate the plot and break it up.  Thirty years later, when a resurgent Ku Klux Klan threatened to terrorize the South and undermine the recently enacted Voting Rights Act, Hoover's FBI tore the Klan apart.  I have often reflected that, had there been an FBI in place in Germany to keep the Brownshirts under control, Hitler would never have made it.

In a fundamentally vapid and poorly informed review of Bobby and J. Edgar in The New York Times in 2007, the staffer for Mother Jones, David Corn, concluded that "Hersh goes soft on Hoover toward the end."  He may have had something there.

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