I’m finally getting around to talking about recent films. Two that had great promise but ultimately disappoint are J. Edgar and The Descendants.
They both address the questions of virtue—particularly manliness and generosity—that have had my attention.
J. Edgar is about the founder of the FBI. Any analysis of the film should be, in part, about its historical accuracy. Mine won’t be, because I don’t know enough. But I will say up front that there’s no clear evidence that Hoover was gay, wore dresses on occasion, routinely blackmailed presidents, or was lacking in personal courage. Insofar as the film has a point of view, it is about the manly director—Clint Eastwood—accepting those pieces of conventional wisdom masquerading as unvarnished truth for granted.
In Gran Torino, Eastwood takes a deeply flawed character and turns him into a kind of Christ figure—offering up his life unarmed to save his friends. The one thing that hero was never short on was courage and a kind of plainspoken integrity.
The character in J. Edgar is most obviously a blackmailing, paranoid liar obsessed hypocritically with the morality of others. We learn he was secretly gay, had a complicated (but perhaps not overtly sexual) relationship with his classy top aide and constant companion, had issues with his mother, put on at least one dress, denied the existence of organized crime, blackmailed every new president to enhance his power, was a master at taking credit for the courageous and heroic actions of his agents, was an effective publicity-hog in general, was obsessed unreasonably with the internal Communist threat, was severely judgmental and creepily investigative when it came to the personal lives of JFK and MLK, and had a uncannily loyal secretary.
The film mentions, so to speak, that Hoover demanded and usually got the highest level of professionalism from his agents and was a relentless path-breaker when it came to employing the latest techniques in fighting crime. It was probably a good and certainly an effective thing, for example, to have pushed to make kidnapping a federal offense, whatever the murky details of the Lindbergh kidnapping in particular. But the film doesn’t dwell on those accomplishments.
The film focuses on Hoover’s shortcomings when it came to personal virtues without really wondering—much less explaining—how it was that such a deeply flawed man could have built such an impressive and mostly admirable institution. There’s a lot truthful to be said about Hoover’s abuse of unaccountable power and how strangely pathetic and rather dangerous he had gotten late in life, but that can’t be the whole story.
Overall, the film is psychologically lame. It doesn’t give us a sense of the whole man—real or fictional. So it’s mostly long and boring—one damn incident after another.
I don’t think it’s Eastwood’s point that Hoover’s closeted gayness was the cause of all his secretive and dishonorable excesses. Nor do I think he wants it to be his point that Hoover’s gayness was caused by his overbearing mother and virtually absent father. But someone looking for psychological explanations could easily rush to those judgments. The film mostly seems lacking in more astute and generous judgments.
The fact might be that there’s nothing so wrong with a public figure—a role model—wanting to keep his private life private. Certainly MLK and JFK wanted to do that, and we don’t think we really see who they were when we focus on their womanizing. Certainly we blame Hoover for that kind of focus. (Our judgment concerning Hoover’s hypocrisy should be limited, though, by the lack of evidence that he was casually promiscuous.)
Hoover can’t be called wrong for keeping the sexual component of his relationship with Tolson (if there was one) to himself. He certainly was very open about that deep friendship between two remarkable men. The high points of the film suggest the delight—mostly conversational delight—two kindred spirits took in each other.