J. Edgar: Finding Emotion and Humanity in History

J. EdgarEditor’s Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the AHA. See also our past movie posts, including AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman’s article, “Historians and The Conspirator: Using Film to Ask Big Questions,” and our roundup of historians’ movie reviews from the “Masters at the Movies” Perspectives on History series.

In a move common to Hollywood movies, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar downplays the historical significance of this controversial figure for a more in-depth look into the man. The historical element, though present and comprehensive, isn’t at the heart of the film narrative in the same way as J. Edgar Hoover’s underdog qualities: his sexual repression, his social quirks, the unhealthy relationship with his mother, the speech impediment. These all snowball to the forefront of the audience’s mind, somewhat obscuring the questionable practices and biases of the character. In a weird twist, the audience becomes invested in this flawed man on the screen, rooting for a protagonist who is clearly the bad guy. At the end when Hoover dies—and I ruin nothing not readily known about J. Edgar Hoover by saying this—the audience hopes for his longtime secretary (played with quiet power by Naomi Watts) to destroy Hoover’s secret files. It might seem crazy for anyone at the AHA to cheer for the destruction of those files, but it’s a feeling prompted by director Clint Eastwood and well nurtured by Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the title character.

From the very title, J. Edgar, we are cued to view him in more personal terms, and not as the J. Edgar Hoover in the history books. His sexually charged, yet repressed relationship with Clyde Tolson is perhaps the most overarching narrative thread in the whole movie, and it is one of love, pain, and emotion—not of historical significance.

But this is not to say that J. Edgar is historically inaccurate or more skewed than any other biopic. There is an effortless quality to how this film navigates the many decades Hoover worked in the different iterations of what is now the FBI, and provides a great narrative of how the agency developed over the years. Along the way the movie covers events like the Lindbergh kidnapping and Martin Luther King Jr. winning the Nobel Prize, and shows many encounters with presidents and famous politicians. But what the audience hangs on to is the pathos—and who is to say that this is a lesser narrative because of it?

I personally don’t begrudge the movie for the path it took, favoring the exploration of Hoover’s humanity over a deeper look into his life and deeds. J. Edgar shows that history is not without emotion and humanity. Too often history gets boiled down to dates, places, and names when there is a personal story to tell that students and the public at large can grab on to; a story with a human dimension that works to make it more memorable. Sure there are instances when this path can lead to poor, at times laughable, depictions of history; however, I don’t believe J. Edgar crosses this line. Where that line is, I couldn’t say, but I recommend you see J. Edgar and judge for yourself. The movie opened in select theaters November 9 and nationwide on Friday, November 11.

J. Edgar. Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Dustin Lane Black; with Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer. Running Time: 137 minutes.

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  1. Chris Smith

    With respect, I differ: all humans are human, but to omit the cost in suffering which Hoover, his agency, and his policies inflicted upon others—not to mention the crimes he committed—is to distort the historical record even further.

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  2. Richard Kirkendall

    The “historical element” is not “comprehensive.” The film ignores Hoover’s heavy participation in the Second Red Scare and his relations with Nixon and McCarthy in that period.

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