Jan 302012

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Warner Bothers, 2011, 137 minutes
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Arnie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Hamilton and Jeffrey Donovan
Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Robert Lorenz
Director: Clint Eastwood

Historical Background

Born on January 1, 1895 into a family of government bureaucrats, John Edgar Hoover joined the Justice Department shortly after the United States entered WWI. Quickly earning the trust of his superiors, Hoover was assigned to help decide who would be arrested as a radical. After the end of the war, radicalism surged across the United States, and when Attorney General Alexander Palmer’s house was bombed on June 2, 1919, the Justice Department decided to deport foreign-born radicals. Hoover was promoted to head of the Radical Division within the Bureau of Investigation because of his superb organizational skills and experience coordinating with the Immigration Bureau to deport aliens without actually convicting them of specific crimes.

Rising to Acting Director of the Bureau in 1924, Hoover switched the Bureau’s focus from investigating political organizations to individuals accused of breaking the law, and Hoover made the Bureau the national center for fingerprints. The improved Bureau finally had a target when the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby on March 1, 1932 sparked a national outcry. Hoover was put in charge of an investigation that included the postal inspector, the Secret Service, the Prohibition Unit, the Washington Metropolitan Police and the Bureau. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) decided to create a more powerful federal police force by combining the larger Prohibition Bureau with the smaller Bureau of Investigation, Hoover worried that he would have to accept a secondary role. The situation changed when a botched attempt to rescue bank robber Frank “Jelly” Nash on June 17, 1933 ended with one bureau agent and three local law officers, as well as Nash, dead. Such a blatant attack on federal law enforcement officials drove Attorney General Homer Cummings to declare war on crime. Hoover was put in charge of the new division, which captured or killed a number of Public Enemies. Believing that he and he alone should symbolize the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), twenty-four magazine articles, three books and four movies portrayed Hoover as having trained the men and gathered the detection techniques employed in the laboratories, so Hoover started to be treated like a celebrity.

The FBI had become quite powerful when FDR died on April 12, 1945, and Hoover had become a national symbol. After cooperating smoothly with the same president for twelve years, Hoover was unhappy about having to work with Harry Truman, FDR’s successor. Believing that Truman was weak on anti-communism, he broke with the president and testified in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) on March 26, 1947, which earned him the support of the right wing. Although Truman won the 1948 election to everyone’s surprise, the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953) seemed to confirm the global Communist conspiracy. When Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1952, he supported Hoover’s belief that domestic security trumped civil liberties. Eisenhower’s courting of Hoover paid off when he testified in front of HUAC in 1953 to express his full support of the administration.

John F. Kennedy symbolized the shift in cultural values that would take place during the 1960s, and Hoover disliked both the president and the changes in society. In fact, Hoover used the FBI to attack any group that threatened the status quo, including Martin Luther King Jr., the anti-war movement, and the Black Panthers, employing wiretapping techniques of dubious legality. Having known Richard Nixon since the beginning of his career, Hoover naturally had a close relationship with the new president. However, Nixon’s aides were not impressed by Hoover’s lengthy history of anti-communism, while Hoover viewed Nixon’s aides as dangerously reckless, therefore his continued career was already uncertain when he died of a heart attack on May 2, 1972.

Plot Summary

Near the end of his career, an elderly J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells a young FBI agent the story of his life, which is presented through a series of flashbacks, beginning with the bombing of Attorney General Palmer’s house in 1919. After making his name as head of the Radical Division, which deported foreign-born radicals, Hoover is named acting director of the FBI because he was viewed as honest. However, Hoover struggles to obtain the necessary resources to modernize the Bureau until the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby in March 1932 and the Kansas City Massacre a year later give Hoover the opportunity to transform the Bureau into the national police force.

With the assistance of Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his trusted secretary, Hoover builds private files of information that would embarrass powerful people, thus ensuring that he remains head of the FBI through the administrations of numerous presidents. However, he also struggles to keep secret his romantic relationship with Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer), the assistant director of the Bureau.

Historical Accuracy

Four thousand people were arrested as suspected spies by the Justice Department during the course of WWI. After the end of the war, a wave of bombs sent to prominent public figures served to heighten hysteria. Recognized as an excellent administrator, Hoover was promoted to head of the Radical Division within the Bureau of Investigation. When the stress of running the department and maneuvering for the Presidential nomination forced Palmer to take several weeks of rest, Hoover was left alone to oversee the anti-radical campaign. The Immigration Act of 1918 permitted the deportation of any alien who belonged to an organization that advocated political violence but most aliens with left-wing views belonged to socialist organizations that emphasized working within the political system, which left few targets. Several thousand members of the Union of Russian Workers were arrested on November 7, 1919, even though the Tsarist government of Russia had been the actual target. Although the recently formed Communist Party called for revolution and was made up of aliens, the Bureau lacked enough agents to organize roundups of thousands of Communist Party members in thirty-three cities, so it had to accept the assistance of local anti-communist groups, who had little interest in respecting the party members’ rights. Between 4,000 and 6,000 radicals were arrested on the night of January 2, 1920, but the severity of the raid stirred up a huge storm of criticism that forced the department to abandon the campaign.

The use of the Immigration Act of 1918 to deport aliens based on membership in an organization that advocated political violence is ignored in the movie, while the script greatly reduces the number of radicals arrested. It is unlikely that Hoover broke the law by arming his men during raids on radicals, and the movie does not show the civilian volunteers who mistreated suspected radicals. The script correctly points out that Hoover made his name as head of the radical division, but strays into fiction when the screen Hoover has to keep his crusade against the radicals secret from the rest of the Justice Department, and Attorney General Palmer loses his job due to the raids.

The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby on March 1, 1932 was viewed as national crisis, and Hoover was put in charge of the investigation, coordinating the efforts of the postal inspector, the Secret Service, the Prohibition Unit, the Washington Metropolitan Police and the Bureau. Despite no involvement in the actual arrest, Hoover ensured that he was present for the press conference where the New York City Police Commissioner announced the arrest of Hauptmann. Actually, the real FBI had not played the leading role in the search, and Hoover definitely did not personally conduct the investigation of the crime scene. The portrayal of the capture and trial of Hauptmann is impressive, but Hoover’s involvement in the case is grossly overstated. Most important, the Bureau already was the national center for fingerprints.

Worried that newly elected President Roosevelt will pass him over for the position of director of an expanded Bureau, the screen Hoover uses possession of politically embarrassing information on President Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor to ensure that he retains control of the Bureau. There is no evidence that the genuine Hoover resorted to blackmail to keep his position, and it is much more probable that Hoover was selected to lead the new Bureau because he had proven willing to satisfy the president’s informal requests for information outside of normal channels.

The movie revolves around the relationship between Hoover and Clyde Tolson. Four years younger than Hoover, Tolson had gained high-level administrative experience working for the War Department before transferring to the Bureau in April 1928. Hoover began grooming him to become second-in-command of the Bureau, and Tolson became one of two assistant directors within two years, an astonishingly rapid advancement. The two men became extremely close, travelling to and from work, eating lunch and going on vacations together. No evidence exists of a sexual relationship, but Tolson was his escort at every social event, and they acted as if they were in a relationship. Since neither man ever married, this naturally led to rumors of homosexuality but anyone who made a public accusation was visited by agents and pressured to either provide proof or retract the accusation, so people soon learned to not enquire too closely.

The screen Hoover is literally terrified by romantic overtures from women until his mother ruthlessly describes the fate of suspected homosexuals and teaches him how to cope with women. The scene where Hoover’s mother explains the facts of homosexual life to her son is imagined but Hoover’s mother had written in a journal that she would rather have a dead son than a lily (homosexual). Hoover did have lengthy relationships with Dorothy Lamour and Lela Rogers, Ginger Rogers’ mother, which may have been friends simply covering for his relationship with Tolson or may have been genuine if failed attempts at a heterosexual relationship. None of the women involved ever revealed exactly what happened.

The film’s depiction of Hoover as a dark spymaster who manipulates presidents ignores the powerful politicians who aided his rise because they hoped to use him for their own ends. Attorney General Stone pushed for the FBI to take the lead in the hunt for the Public Enemies because he wanted more power for the Justice Department. As Japan, Germany and Italy embarked on programs of military expansion during the 1930s, FDR turned to Hoover to monitor communist and fascist sympathizers in the U.S., which had to be kept secret in order to avoid arousing the influential isolationist movement. Eisenhower needed Hoover’s public support to convince the nation that his administration was taking a hard stance against communism. Although President John Kennedy’s (JFK) inauguration speech stated that the torch had been passed to a new generation, he kept Hoover as head of the FBI to appease the potent right wing. Hoover had expected that he would have to leave the Bureau when he reached the mandatory retirement age in 1965, but Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, had inherited an administration that resented him as a pretender, so he needed a loyal friend. Hoover’s backing reassured many conservatives that Johnson’s civil rights program was not a communist cover. The dedication was rewarded when Johnson waived the mandatory retirement for Hoover.

Furthermore, the script is built around flashbacks to the Lindbergh kidnapping, and this emphasis led to a perverse distortion of the facts. FBI agents were granted authority to bear arms due to the Public Enemies’ reign of terror, not because of the Lindbergh kidnapping, but the hunt for the Public Enemies receives only cursory attention. In fact, screenwriter Black’s decision to focus on the Lindbergh case limits the scope of the script since Hoover was a key figure in law enforcement from WWI to his death, but the movie only hints at his impact.

Scenes of Hoover watching the inauguration parades of FDR and Nixon from the balcony of his office, bookend the movie, and were intended to highlight the decline in Hoover’s influence. He exchanged waves with FDR but he had become bitter by the time of Nixon’s parade, resentful that the Nixon administration viewed him as an irrelevant relic. The audience would have a better understanding of Hoover’s astonishing staying power if the film had also shown the inauguration parades of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.

To be fair, the movie got many things right, including a great scene in Congress where Hoover is grilled on the fact that he commands the FBI but had never actually made an arrest. A humiliated Hoover did arrest Alvin Karpis after he had already been captured, although the script should have pointed out that Karpis was the last major outlaw from the Public Enemy Era, so his apprehension marked the end of that period. Melvin Purvis is briefly mentioned as the real hunter of notorious bank robber John Dillinger, but Hoover was genuinely jealous of Purvis’ fame and launched an even greater vendetta against him than is shown.

Hoover had relied on his direct connection to Roosevelt and Eisenhower to protect him against the attorney general, his nominal superior, but this approach was futile when the president and the attorney general, Robert Kennedy (RFK), were brothers. In addition, he despised both Kennedys, and he loathed the direct line with a buzzer that RFK had installed in Hoover’s office.

The film’s portrayal of Hoover’s personality is quite accurate. A martinet who dismissed agents for a lack of education, he hated facial hair and had his desk raised to be able to intimidate people. Moreover, he was convinced that he understood the threat of communism better than anyone else in the government.

Hoover had immersed himself in the study of communism as preparation for the anti-radical campaign in 1919, and communist literature was particularly strident at that point since its leaders believed that global revolution was only weeks or months away. When it became apparent that this would not happen, communist thinkers changed their approach but Hoover’s view of communism was formed during that period and never wavered during the following fifty years. Fixated on domestic communism, even in the 1960s, Hoover did deny the existence of organized crime. The validity of Hoover’s public ridicule of the idea of a national crime syndicate was questioned when New York State Police found a conference of more than sixty Mafia dons in upstate New York on November 14, 1957. Hoover’s ingrained resistance against cooperation with other governmental organizations drove him to ignore the criticism. In 1959, the New York office had 400 agents investigating Communists, while four agents handled organized crime.

The script tip-toed around several less-savory aspects of Hoover’s personality. Hoover tried to break the main civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. because King had criticized the FBI for its lack of involvement in the civil rights movement. A senior FBI agent did send a tape of King’s sexual activities accompanied by a letter threatening to reveal King’s affairs if he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, but King received the tape only after he had returned from Norway with the prize. Possessing a visceral hatred of King, Hoover even called him “the most notorious liar” during a press conference, but the movie does not present Hoover’s deep-rooted racism. He had grown up in a neighborhood that was primarily made up of white, middle-class Protestant immigrants from the south, and the only blacks he encountered were servants, so he was not well-suited to appreciate demands for civil rights.

While the movie shows that the race track covers Hoover’s losses but still paid winnings, that generosity was only part of the corruption or abuse of position. Since the mob fixed the races, the gangsters could ensure that Hoover won his bets instead of bribing him directly. Hoover’s daily lunch tab at an expensive Washington restaurant was picked up by a friend. Furthermore, he claimed that his annual vacations in California were official “inspection trips,” so they were paid for by taxpayers. Oil mogul Clint Murchison hosted Hoover and Tolson every summer for free at his hotel at La Jolla. The FBI was responsible for renovations and new furniture for his house, and agents were expected to routinely give expensive gifts.

The relationship between Hoover and Helen Gandy is captured perfectly in the movie. While it is unknown if Hoover proposed to Gandy in the Library of Congress, she was his faithful secretary from 1921 until the day he died. Together, they set up confidential files in cabinets that filled an entire wall behind Gandy’s desk in the outer office. There has long been a rumor that those files contained information that could be used to blackmail powerful people, but it is a rumor that can not be proved or disproved. When Hoover died, he was temporarily succeeded by Tolson as director of the FBI until Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray as Acting Director the next day. When Gray arrived at the FBI headquarters, Gandy had already removed a significant portion of the files from the cabinets, claiming that they were Hoover’s personal files, including private letters and financial records. It took Gandy ten days to remove Hoover’s personal files from the office to the basement of Hoover’s house, where they were shredded. Gray was unable to determine which files had been taken because the documents were organized according to Gandy’s personal system. The real content of the files will remain unknown, since Gandy steadfastly claimed that they were personal files, and they have all been destroyed. The scene of Nixon’s staff arriving at Hoover’s office to seize the files and finding the cabinets empty is a slight dramatization of the process, which actually took days.


One of the standout scenes is when Hoover offers Tolson the position of Associate Director, and Tolson agrees on the condition that they always have lunch and dinner together, good or bad day. Clearly the proposal is both official and romantic, and it is filmed like a marriage proposal.

The conversation between Tolson and Hoover about Hoover’s need for a Mrs. Hoover is imagined but rings true. He was under pressure to marry, especially when he was younger, but the lovers’ quarrel/Brokeback Mountain scene is overdone.

The scenes of Tolson and Hoover in their old age are excellent, as the two men bicker like an old married couple. Both Hammer and DiCaprio are unrecognizable under the makeup, and they are believable as elderly men. Despite DiCaprio’s impressive performance the real Hoover spoke even faster. However, he does nail Hoover’s mincing, weight-on-toes walk.

Screenwriter Dustin Black had interviewed retired FBI agents from the period, and they admitted that they just did not know for sure whether or not Hoover was gay. More important, he interviewed gay men who had lived in Washington, D. C. during the period, and they explained that there had been clear rules that had to be obeyed in order to survive. If they were polite and unobtrusive they would be accepted, or to be precise, ignored, but they would never consummate their relationships because it would simply be too dangerous. Black makes a convincing case that Hoover’s personal experiences had made him paranoid and fixated on finding other people’s sexual secrets, while a domineering mother had not nurtured him with love but relentlessly encouraged his ambition instead, so that she could bask in his success, a success that his father had not achieved.

Director Clint Eastwood worked closely with Black to ensure that the movie was based on a solid factual foundation, which makes one wonder why so many facts were altered. Eastwood grew up when Hoover was a hero, so perhaps he had difficulty being too critical.

The individual scenes are well-crafted but film simply does not work as a whole. The arrangement of the flashbacks to the Lindbergh kidnapping form the movie’s structure, but they are actually disruptive, and weaken the story.

It is a touching love story about gay men when the idea of gay rights did not even exist. A man struggles with his own sexual repression, the disapproval of his mother and an intolerant society, but manages to maintain a caring relationship with the love of his life. However, Hoover was one of the most powerful men in the United States government for forty years, and he did far more harm than good to the nation. The moving love story is given precedence over the story of a nasty, vindictive, paranoid, narrow-minded bureaucrat who believed that his own patriotism was the ideal and anyone who did not meet his standards was a threat to the nation.