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Random thoughts on J. Edgar (Hoover)

Updated on July 9, 2012

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J. Edgar Hoover was one of communism's most capable foes. As interpreted by Leonardo DiCaprio, he becomes truly puzzling. And this assessment actually corresponds to how history has handed him down. It is hard to know what he was thinking, in life as well as on film, and how he managed to not only help guide this country into the modern era but master all the many drawbacks of progress, too. Through Hoover, government crept into every nook and cranny, which is where the matter lies. It is a good thing in bad times, and a bad thing in good times. But he also somehow manipulated the situation so that American ideals, such as they are, would forever remain the final arbiter. Everyone still says the system works, even though everything has changed. Other than that, to Hoover, the crusade against communism and communists was imperative.

Hoover is known for having stockpiled information to potentially use against men and women who rose to prominence in the political arena. But he was also faithful to those with whom he shared likes and dislikes. Case in point, he aggressively supported A. Mitchell Palmer, an architect of the Red Scare, who, at a time when Bolshevism overtook Russia, went up against (to him) a talented bunch of homegrown sympathizers. Moving ahead from the Palmer Raids and a series of violent labor disputes, the movie shows how Hoover tried to keep his worldly outlook on a simplistic plane. He pursued radicals, gangsters, and, if his careful monitoring of Eleanor Roosevelt is any indication, Democrats, too. The Kennedys irritated him and he struggled against the acceptance of Martin Luther King as an unstoppable force. All in all, however, he held his own, whatever that was.

In contrast to the perpetual hardball of current affairs, Hoover constructed for himself a very gentle, if, again, puzzling personal life to fall back on. It consisted mainly of his mother and best friend, Clyde Tolson. But it also included his secretary, Helen Gandy, and probably others upon whom he knew he could rely. Hoover liked the bright lights of society and might have become Dorothy Lamour's earnest suitor, but the mere mention of it upset the delicate balance of the relationships that sustained him throughout very significant cases, one after the other, spanning 48 years and 8 Presidents.

One can only wonder what he thought off the record of the Lindbergh case. The abduction took place in 1932. Despite the capture, trial, and execution of Bruno Hauptmann, serious doubts continue to linger. The movie does nothing to dispel them. Hoover was still young then and must have learned a great deal about how to handle high profile crimes in both the private and public sector. Lindbergh had been a renowned superhero after flying the Atlantic solo, actively involved in international politics. . . . Near the same time, gangster movies came into vogue. Talkies were still raw and novel. Those gunshots and sirens deeply stirred audiences, some staggered in and out of theaters round the clock. Hoover had a lot to do with the real life criminal-counterparts played by Cagney and Raft. Their familiar names -- Bugsy Moran, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly, still resonate. The good guys prevailed upon moviemakers to glorify G-men, but as luck would have it, the bad guys got better box-office.

The parade of the famous and infamous throughout the film is constant. Hoover cannot resist the temptation to exaggerate his participation in the apprehension of so many "villains". He lent his services to comic book illustrators. He staged photo-ops during arrests. And on several occasions, he was not just the head of the FBI, but influential well beyond the limits of his sworn duties and functions. His position against communism never softened. Together with A. Mitchell Palmer, Richard M. Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, and likeminded others, Hoover beat back the would-be insurrectionists and insured that communism would never gain genuine power in the USA. It could be studied and discussed, but pretty much relegated to assorted ivory towers.

Word of mouth on J. Edgar (2011) is mixed. Clint Eastwood fans seem to have expected something other than what they got. All the same, it is a privilege to be able to observe an exceptional filmmaker tackle so deep and complex a subject. Hoover the man at best is difficult to grasp. At a certain point in the film, it becomes apparent that in addition to film, television starts to impact the nation. There are several memorable clips, including Martin Luther King receiving a Nobel Prize, which Hoover sought to sabotage. Despite his power, Hoover could not always win. But in the movie, as in real life, it seems as though, until his death in 1972, that he was always someone who knew what was going on.


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