J. Edgar chronicles the life of the man many consider to be the most powerful in the world for most of the 20th century. As director of the FBI from its inception in 1935 until his death in 1972, Hoover collected the secrets of criminals, politicians, and anyone he saw as a possible threat to the United States. These secrets kept him in power for almost fifty years. Following his death, all FBI directors have been limited to one ten-year term unless granted extend tenure by the U.S. Senate.
In J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood manages to do what he has failed to do in his other historically accurate biopics – he makes an evenly compelling film. His other historical epics shine in moments, but they falter because Eastwood seems too committed to the absolute fact of the historical events. He shies away from embellishment, and often embellishment is necessary in story-telling to bring out deeper emotional truths. J. Edgar succeeds, because it is about truth suppressed indefinitely. Eastwood is able to stay true to the events of Hoover’s life while maintaining the dramatic tension of the story.
The truth suppressed in this film is Hoover’s lifelong closeted homosexuality. The film argues that Hoover feared the public repercussions of his sexual inclinations, and so he denied them for his entire life. Leonardo DiCaprio does an excellent job inhabiting Hoover, and Armie Hammer does an even better job in the role of Hoover’s longtime deputy and secret life partner Clyde Tolson. Much will be made of the make-up used to age the two key players, but this is a film about what lies beneath the surface, and DiCaprio and Hammer portray those subsumed longings with great skill.
Hoover’s power is the fastidiously collected personal information he holds over the heads of anyone who might remove him from power, like FDR or JFK. Administration after administration, he watches over the inaugural parade from his office window and then dutifully tucks his scandalous truths into manilla folders and goes to meet the new president, emerging from the oval office minutes later secure in his position of national secret seeker-outer and keeper. He does this, ostensibly, in service to his country, believing it to be ever under immanent threat from Communists, gangsters, or civil rights activists, and believing himself to be the only one capable of protecting the nation.
Hoover’s files are full of recordings and correspondences of a sexually scandalous nature. To Hoover, it seems that the most dreadful secrets to keep are those of sexual malfeasance. Hoover felt oppressed by American society because of his sexuality, so he used sexuality to oppress the avatars of his oppressor. Hoover wielded the weapon he knew best, the very weapon wielded against him.
When I witness the fervor with which our society attends to any sexual scandal in the church, I wonder if its not in response to the fervor with which many vocal segments of the church impose their own particular sexual ethics upon society. “All who live by the sword” – or perhaps by the imposed sexual ethic – “will die by it.” “The weapons formed against us” might not “prosper,” but I’m not sure the same can be said about the weapons we form against others when they turn those weapons back against us.
Eventually, Hoover faces off against men unafraid of the truths he hides. Men like Martin Luther King, Jr. are too committed to truths higher than the fact of their sins to be dissuaded from their work. Men like Martin Luther King, Jr. also know that truthfully, the truth sets people free.
Hoover imagines that he is guarding truths when in actuality, he is only guarding facts. Facts must be expressed to become truth. Concealing fact is deception, and deception is bondage for all involved. Expressing fact is revelation, and in revelation there is the potential for liberation, but only in a culture of forgiveness. This is the culture in which James counsels his readers to confess their sins – “If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins one to another…” (James 5:15-16). So I don’t really blame Hoover for trying to conceal his carefully collected facts – he did not exist in an atmosphere of forgiveness, and in a climate of condemnation, the truth is terrifying.