Di Caprio’s Hoover: No More Mr Nice Guy

Many American institutions and corporations – Ford, Playboy, the Mercury Theatre, the Actors’ Studio, Disneyland, the Hughes Tool Company, Facebook, Fox News – bear a close resemblance to cults, and the FBI especially so.

Teetotal, clean-shaven, Caucasian, God-fearing, fervidly anti-Communist and mostly unmarried, J Edgar Hoover’s ‘G-men’ had the zeal of medieval crusaders and could be fired for looking at him impertinently or growing a moustache, and, like other disciples of other cults (Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons come to mind), persecuted each other as much as they did the Free World’s enemies.

Does a democracy need a secret police? Hoover never doubted it, and from Emma Goldman through Al Capone to Martin Luther King with increasing power and budget and weaponry sought out, embellished and fabricated such internal threats to America’s continuity – Anarchists, Communists, gin-importing hoodlums, machine-gun-waving bank robbers, Nazi spies, the NCC, the Kennedys – that no President dared sack him and he was reverenced like a secular Pope or Hopalong Cassidy by generations raised on the radio shows, movie shorts and comic books (‘Don’t shoot, G-men!’) that he egoistically co-authored and reconfigured, providing a role-model in adjustable paranoia for Santamaria, Menzies, Ruddock and, lately, Scott Morrison and Chris Bowen: the aliens are upon us and among us and must be named, uprooted, shamed and banished from our shores.

His implacable zealotry, in part careerist and empire-building, in part sincerely patriotic and self-mesmerised, derived, as this film shows, from his homosexuality. A mother’s boy who lived in his unforgiving progenitor’s house till the end of her days, he flinched always from feminine company and built a kind of priesthood to avoid it. The love of his life, Clyde Tolson, he lunched and dined with every day, travelling to La Jolla each year for a fortnight’s honeymoon-revelry and racehorse-betting and never otherwise left Washington: his bureaucracy was his universe, his torment of his fellow citizens his theocratic purpose and his private hobby.

In Clint Eastwood’s intricately nuanced and structured film we see his closeted, cross-dressing anguish at war with his politics. Vigorous womanising rogues like JFK and King he bugs and photographs in flagrante, and in stifled wonderment hears them over and over at their gasping, pleasured exertions. Offered sex by Ginger Rogers, and a dance by her mother, he flees the restaurant and goes home with Clyde. He later ponders marriage with Dorothy Lamour but Clyde beats him up, and that is the end of that. Like many bureaucrats he finds a kind of eroticism in his tyranny, his dress codes, his invigilations and his punishment of rivals: Melvin Purvis who stalked and shot Dillinger he demotes to a desk job and he is never heard of again.

Di Caprio, whom I had long thought a minor talent, makes a wonderful, theatrical banquet of a role that would test Olivier. Seen successively old and young and even younger, as the story flips back and forward between his turf wars with Bobby Kennedy, his hunting down of the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, his empire-building and wooing of Clyde, he seems at first too histrionic, defiant and righteous, but we realise later this is the man. The performance ranks with Seymour Hoffman’s Capote and George Scott’s Patton, and its absence from Oscar Night (and Oldman’s presence) eez, as Yul Bryner might say, a puzzlement.

Naomi Watts is very fine as Miss Gandy, the personal private secretary he initially thinks he loves and who knocks him back but serves him selflessly for forty-eight years, shredding his most contentious filth-files as the end titles roll; Armie Hammer (who played both Winkelvi) beautifully, subtly loose and aristocratic, uncaring, as Tolson old and young, reminiscent at both ages of Henry Fonda; Judi Dench as his always threatening bitch-mother (she tersely reminds him of a cross-dressing friend who, shamed at school, then shot himself, and rightly so, my son, my dear dear son, rightly so); Christopher Shyer as Nixon, baritone, foul-mouthed, mendacious, rivettingly good; Josh Lucas as Lindbergh nicely shell-shocked into a kind of stoic diffidence; and Daniel Herriman, an Australian actor I have long admired, broodily ambiguous as the (alleged) kidnapper Hauptmann.

Sometimes the ageing makeup works and sometimes not: Watts is always exactly right, but Hammer seems exhumed from a crypt and keen for a night out blood-sucking. The script, by Dustin Lance Black, is very fine, better, I think, in the end (though not in the beginning), than its model, Citizen Kane. In a marvellous early scene Edgar shows Miss Gandy by night in a semi-romantic tryst his filing system, a gigantic room of detailed probing exactitude with which he plans to change the known world into a safer, sweeter place, and we understand him immediately: the file-clerk as fuhrer. We have seen his like before. Rudd comes to mind, and Santamaria, and Laurie Oakes, and the Tony Abbott file on Pauline Hanson. Hoover has given us, along with fingerprinting and much forensic deduction, the vigilant mess that is modern politics.

Eastwood gets a few things wrong. The Bobby Kennedy of Jeffrey Donovan is too throw-away, mild, brown-eyed and tall, physically nothing like the tiny, combative, pale-eyed, gay-cadenced original. He shows Hoover surprised by the JFK murder when he was up to his neck in it; probably. He calls Bobby and gleefully tells him and hangs up quickly, when in fact he asked respectfully for instructions from Bobby, his employer, and Bobby said, ‘I’ll call you back.’ The film does not tie him to the King murder, and it must, of course it must.

There is no illustration of the McCarthy era, the hounding of Robeson, Chaplin, Seberg, Hemingway; and so on. For Edgar and Clyde, there is no first kiss: we learn only later in a fierce flamboyant hotel-room quarrel (the operative word is ‘completion’) that they’ve been what we then called ‘an item’ for decades. The dark-shadowed brown-and-yellow images, so familar from Flags Of Our Fathers and Changeling, loiter too long and by the Kent State/Watergate seventies seem outdated. We hear little of his Christian Science faith and nothing of his father’s early dementia, nor what his brother did. And we learn at the end that some of what we have seen did not happen, it was just a few more of Edgar’s big, self-serving lies; and, well, that’s a bit a worry. We should have been told; or not.

But it’s a very, very, very fine movie, breaking new ground in cinematic historiography – in, for instance, the scene when after his mother’s death Hoover dresses himself up as the dear departed, and looks at her recosmeticked ghost in the mirror, like Norman Bates in Psycho, and talks to himself in her voice. It stands alongside Capote, Piaf, Ray, Walk the Line, Amazing Grace and The Last Mitterrand as a very, very good reflective biography, and it should be seen.

  1. Bob, I’ve read in a few places that the film focuses much less on Hoover’s affect on US society/politics/etc and more on his personality and that this detracted somewhat from the whole thing. Any thoughts?

    It sounds good though, I trust your judgement on films and shall see this one tomorrow.

    • Like The Iron Lady? Yes, but not as much. If one were making a film about the secretive Putin, it would tend also to be about personality, not policy, secrecy being the theme, as it is in Tinker, Tailor, or the foremost theme.

      Each of his persecutions — Robeson, Seberg, Hemingway — deserves a film of its own.

      It’s pretty detailed on Lindbergh, the case that made his power.

      See what you think.

  2. effect, god damn, effect, not affect

  3. You may have admired the actor who the (alleged) kidnapper Hauptmann for years, but it’s DAMON Herrimann, not Daniel.

    • Sorry. Misread my notes.

      I talked to him backstage and in theatre bars for fifteen years before discovering his name. And getting that wrong by the sound of it. I remember him particularly in Laughter On The 25th Floor and The Cripple of Inishnaan and in the reading of Intimate Strangers in which he played, sight unseen, Arthur Miller, quite wonderfully.

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