By Jason Apuzzo. • I had the opportunity recently to read Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay for the new Clint Eastwood-Leonardo DiCaprio film J. Edgar, set for release this October. Even though the film covers a fair bit of Cold War history, in terms of the FBI’s handling of communist infiltration, due to the fact that J. Edgar covers Hoover’s full professional story – from his rise in the late 1910s all the way through to the Nixon years – I’ve decided to talk about the screenplay outside the context of one of our regular Cold War Updates!. I would love to give the screenplay an even more exhaustive write-up, frankly, but due to my own time constraints I’ll have to keep things brief – and focus primarily on what the film will be saying about the anti-communist struggle.
I’ve decided to write about this screenplay publicly because it’s covering extremely important areas of history – 50+ years of it, in fact, dwelling on issues of law enforcement and privacy that still resonate with us today – and also because we’re dealing here with an actual historical figure, with a very public record. (I’ll also try to keep things here as spoiler-free as possible – with the understanding, again, that we’re dealing with Hoover’s long public record.) People should know, frankly, how the man who founded the FBI and shaped a large part of 20th century American domestic history is going to be portrayed.
There’s a lot to like about J. Edgar in its first act. Hoover’s colorful rise is set against the struggle over communist infiltration of American society during the late teens and early ‘20s – a struggle rarely covered in cinema, as most people assume (mistakenly) that Soviet agents only first hit our shores during the 1930s. The screenplay actually begins with the bombing of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s home by communist/anarchist saboteurs in 1919, and we see famous figures like the young FDR and Dwight Eisenhower pour out onto the street in the aftermath – as a peppy, ambitious young Hoover arrives on a bicycle and begins piecing together clues over the bombing. In fact, if you’ve seen early set photos of DiCaprio as Hoover on a bicycle (see right), those images are likely from this opening sequence of the film – a sequence that sets the tone and mood of the film with America under a constant sate of siege (first from communist agents in the 1920s, then from criminal mobs in the 1930s, and finally from Soviet agents again from the late 1930s forward). We see Hoover and his maverick team take down Emma Goldman and a violent gang of communist-anarchist saboteurs, and Hoover begins to put the policies and procedures of modern criminal investigation in place.
The communist/anarchist saboteurs in this section of the film, incidentally, are not depicted as terribly pretty people. They’re made to look dangerous and deceptive – not as victims of a witch hunt, or martyrs. In fact, with their bomb-making factories, and attempted gamesmanship of the legal system, obvious parallels will be drawn with today’s Islamic terrorists. The message here couldn’t be more plain: a robust federal investigative force is needed to face down this threat, and ensure domestic security.
Hoover himself at this point is portrayed as dapper, fussy in his attire, mother-fixated and otherwise awkward and repressed with the ladies … but at the same time highly professional, visionary, organized, and almost Sherlock Holmes-like in his ability to draw investigative connections within a case. We learn, for example, that Hoover was one of the people responsible for the Library of Congress’ original index card system – a development that later helped Hoover conceptualize the FBI’s fingerprint database. The young Hoover is depicted as an eccentric, likeable genius, a kind of Richard Feynman of criminal investigation; if you’ve seen The Aviator, which featured DiCaprio playing Howard Hughes as a dashing eccentric, it was easy to imagine DiCaprio as Hoover here in much the same vein.
In Act Two – which is dominated by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and Hoover’s burgeoning relationship with his second-in-command (and eventual lover, so the story goes) Clyde Tolson – things become more complicated. The extremely complex and challenging Lindbergh case, which in its day was bigger than the O.J. trial and the Clinton impeachment all wrapped together, exposes the FBI’s legal and investigative limits – inspiring passage of the Lindbergh Law (making kidnapping a federal offense, once a kidnapper crosses state lines), the consolidation of the FBI’s fingerprint database, and the founding of the FBI’s first crime lab (quaintly enough, in the Attorney General’s private library). At the same time, Hoover himself begins to become a media figure and media manipulator, as he and his ‘G-Men’ go after high-profile criminals like John Dilinger – both in real life, and in comic strips and movies.
Here we begin to see the cracks surface in what the screenwriter takes to be Hoover’s facade. Hoover is depicted as abusing his investigative powers, using recordings of wiretapped love trysts and sordid behavior to threaten public officials; over the course of the screenplay, for example, we see Hoover threaten FDR, RFK, MLK and even Nixon at various points. Admittedly, some of these instances are depicted as acts of self-protection, or as Hoover’s effort to politely ‘hint’ to public officials that – for example, as in the case of JFK – it might not be such a great idea for a sitting President to bed down an East German communist agent; nor might it have been such a great idea, as depicted in the screenplay, for MLK to have participated in sexual trysts just prior to receiving the Nobel Prize. Be that as it may, Hoover is depicted here as ruthless, vaguely seedy, and deeply hypocritical given his own blossoming romance with Tolson – the kind of thing that would likely have destroyed his own public reputation at the time. Hoover is also depicted here as lying and exaggerating about his record, and indulging in personal vendettas.
It’s really in Act Three, however, that J. Edgar’s portrait of Hoover grows truly dark, possibly to the point of caricature. Most of this has to do with Hoover’s wiretapping of MLK, and what is portrayed as Hoover’s deepening ‘paranoia’ over communist influence in government during the 1960s. Hoover’s suspicions toward those around him grow stronger, he grows colder and more callous, his lies bolder, and he’s finally depicted as little more than a creepy old man – peddling lurid audio tapes to the media, Newsweek’s Ben Bradlee in particular.
In a final confrontation, an elder Tolson accuses Hoover of having lied to the public for decades about his record, and we’re obviously intended to side with Tolson. Our final image of Hoover is of the FBI Director splayed out in silk pajamas, dead, surrounded by nude male statues and sex tape transcripts. Not exactly a hero’s end, as screenwriter Black (Milk) tells the story.
To say the screenplay ends on a down and cynical note would be an understatement, with Nixon’s men ransacking Hoover’s (already emptied) offices for incriminating evidence regarding Nixon himself – all while Nixon praises Hoover and his legacy in public. This, the screenplay seems to imply, is how the Machiavellian game is played in our Brave New World of government-by-secret, post-Hoover.
***END OF SPOILERS***
The screenplay thus presents what is essentially a devastating critique of Hoover the man, along with healthy doses of ambivalence about the legacy of his agency, the FBI.
Otherwise, J. Edgar appears to continue – and, one senses, confirm – Clint Eastwood’s gradual drift from what might be termed a ‘center-right’ to ‘center-left’ perspective as a filmmaker. Mr. Eastwood, whom I’ve always admired, might quibble with that characterization, but that’s how J. Edgar at the screenplay level comes across to me – and how I strongly believe it will come across to most people come October when the film makes its inevitable award run. Eastwood himself would probably demur, and say that his leanings are more libertarian – and that Hoover’s intrusions into the private lives of public officials represented gross abuses of power, something with which I’m admittedly inclined to agree.
At the same time, J. Edgar’s chief complaint seems to be that Hoover specifically lied for decades about his own record – and this inevitably ups the stakes in terms of the screenplay’s own accuracy. How much of this screenplay are we to believe? What were the screenwriter’s sources? Not being a Hoover scholar, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of what’s depicted – much of which I suspect will be hotly contested. I did find it odd that in the draft I read, the historical figure of Clyde Tolson – arguably the second most important person in the story after Hoover himself – was misspelled throughout as Clyde ‘Toulson,’ something that doesn’t bode well with respect to the screenwriter’s attention to detail.
In any case, the most controversial aspects of the film when it opens will likely be: 1) the depiction of Hoover’s relationship with Tolson, and; 2) Hoover’s behavior toward MLK. As for internet rumors of DiCaprio and Armie Hammer making out in the film, they’re overplayed. The screenplay I read featured exactly one (melodramatic) kiss, so don’t expect Brokeback Mountain here. The relationship between the two men is depicted as chaste – in fact, mostly they just talk about fashion together. J. Edgar Hoover is depicted in the screenplay as a major fashion plate, incidentally – with movie star good looks and an unerring sense of style. So that’s a good thing.
With all of this said, I hesitate to render a final judgement about the project as a whole – because so much depends here on how DiCaprio in particular plays the part of Hoover. A basic rule of thumb is that stars like DiCaprio don’t take on projects like this in order to make themselves look bad, or anything less than glamorous. In other words, you could do worse these days than have Leonardo DiCaprio decide to tell your life story. (You could, for example, have Paul Reubens tell your life story.)
So my sense is that for most of the film, DiCaprio/Hoover is going to come across as dashing, in the Eliot Ness vein, and only grow more corrupt as he gets older – because in the classic Hollywood equation, old = bad. Old = wrinkles. And although Hoover will take a hit from Black’s screenplay, DiCaprio’s presence will likely make up for a lot of that.
We’ll find out more, come October …
Posted on July 8th, 2011 at 11:48am.