Most Americans get their history from the mass media rather than scholarly tomes that wade through the complexity of events attempting to separate truth from fiction. America's entry into WWII is reduced to films, such as the two hours of burning planes and sinking ships of "Pearl Harbor." We see ancient history through "Ben Hur" and "Cleopatra" and hundreds of others bioptics of this same level. And now, the man who created the modern FBI will be introduced to most Americans from this film. Here's the link to the review I wrote for IMDB, after seeing the film, which was only the beginning of my thinking about its meaning, that goes far beyond the story of a man or even an institution.
Reviews can detract from the immediacy of a film by betraying an ending, but they can also sensitize the viewer to elements that he or she may not otherwise notice. These observations took a couple days to germinate, so you decide if you'd rather see the film first and then read this.
Clint Eastwood, who directed "J. Edgar" began his career as a conservative Republican whose films gloried in showing ruthless power. Over time his politics have become more variegated, based on his own values rather than any partisan line. This film is about J. Edgar Hoover, but it is also about Clint Eastwood, as the message that will affect far more people than all the biographies about this man, is his.
In my IMDB review I questioned the reality of a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt that Hoover purportedly used to control F.D.R. This blog article by the writer of "Out After Death" about E.R. indicates it was an actual letter, whether it was used in the way the film depicted or not. This writer concludes that it, and other evidence, indicates a lesbian relationship.
Ironically, it will never be known whether Eleanor's relationship was sexual anymore than the relationship between Hoover and his long time close associate Clyde Tolson. Cultural norms are always in flux. Intimate friendships among women including holding hands and expressions of love were common and accepted in Eleanor's era, and did not connote sexuality. And men can spend a great deal of time together without breaching the cultural taboo of sexual relationships, which was the nature of the friendship portrayed in the case of the two men. Eastwood's message was that Eleanor was a practicing homosexual but that Hoover was not, the reality of both subject to supposition.
There is another aspect of the film that is interesting, the development of scientific forensics, specifically fingerprinting that became centralized and a major part of law enforcement. This was presented fairly well in the film, but without the final coda, which only happened after Hoover was gone, but was a result of his legacy. The penumbra of the media image of scientific impartiality of the FBI so carefully nurtured by Hoover took on a life of its own. Evidence from the FBI lab, eventually available to all law enforcement agencies, became tantamount to objective truth, and sealed the fate of a defendant.
It turned out that this was far from reality. While complete fingerprints taken in controlled conditions are unique, in actual crimes scenes these don't exist. Rather there are latent, or partial prints, with much less certainty of identification. Until this current decade, the FBI reports never acknowledged this simple truth and maintained that when they concluded that such prints were of a given person it was absolute without any degree of uncertainty based on the incompleteness of the points of the finger print. I happen to be familiar with this as six years ago I spearheaded the inclusion of such statistical probability in the article in Wikipedia, (the section on Criticism contains my references from this earlier period) where it was an uphill battle partly because of the spurious patina of science that had infused forensic investigation.
Now to a scene in the film that is the most meaningful, most provocative in that it can be thought of on several dimensions. The film described the contentious relationship with Hoover and his boss, Attorney General Robert Francis Kennedy. In the film there is a call from an agent that JFK was shot, who responded when asked by Hoover if anyone knew about it, was, "No, only you." This is absurd, as the news of Kennedy's being shot was flashed around the world instantly, faster than any agent could have connected a call.
Since the timing was not even possible the meaning of his call to Robert Kennedy was not self evident. or why it even included in the film? My first thought that was that it was just incredible sloppiness, that no one realized that the event could not have occurred as depicted. But at the end of the film, there was the revelation that many of the scenes depicted were from the self serving memory of Hoover, and not what actually occurred. We are left with concluding that this was a depiction of the inner thoughts of Hoover, or more realistically the thoughts of the person responsible for the film, Clint Eastwood. The issue, beyond this single film, is how will this scene might affect the perceptions of the millions who see it.
Oliver Stone's "JFK." had the effect of increasing that part of the American public who believe that JFK was killed by powerful members of the establishment, including his Vice President and perhaps the head of the FBI. I happen to be among the less than a third of the Americans who absolutely reject this. While the film "J.Edgar" will allow a single individual, Clint Eastwood, to influence the perceptions of the millions who view it about both Hoover and the JFK assassination, this actual recorded conversationbetween Lyndon B, Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover that sheds light on this issue has been viewed by less than a thousand people.
Here are the two people whom most Americans believe conspired either individually or together to kill the President, talking candidly about how best to do a thorough investigation if the crime. They threw out a dozen or so names to be on what evolved as the Warren Commission, with the goal of getting the most independent, honest and thoughtful people to do the investigation. Those who think these two men are co-conspirators in this plot should listen carefully to the conversation, the tone as well as the content.
The radical Republicans who have taken over this party are thriving on hatred and distrust of government, all government, especially that which promotes the idea of a social contract. The belief that a half century ago a President was killed by the leaders of this government only fuels to this distrust. And this film, among, it's other qualities that in some ways are fascinating, continues to foment this particular canard.
This small segment of the film may go unnoticed by the critics, but it should not; as it illustrates the power of dramatized mass media to distort reality and thus shape who we are as a nation.