I am currently teaching a college class called “Mass Media and Popular Culture.” An issue with which my students and I wrestle has to do with the many ways in which the media can frame a narrative. Which version of events are we to believe? A case in point is director Clint Eastwood’s intriguing new period piece “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The story concerns legendary FBI Head, J. Edgar Hoover. As in any “bio-pic” the basic question is, how true is the story being told? Another media related issue that came up for me as I watched “J.Edgar,” has to do with whether or not Eastwood is using the past to comment on the present.
In Hoover’s day, as now, terrorism was an issue. While there was no 9/11, there were Bolshevik revolutionaries setting off bombs in America. The film depicts Hoover as an uptight, “spit and polish” martinet who pioneered criminal science at a time when it was not taken seriously. Hoover advanced the idea of not trampling on a crime scene. He also advocated taking fingerprints from perpetrators and collecting the prints in a central database. Hoover felt that the average American feared for their safety and, according to this telling, went too far, trampling on civil liberties in the process. The issue is raised about due process of law verses neutralizing a threat to our country. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
The film suggests that Hoover was a one man Patriot Act of his day, using the threat of terrorism to advance his cause. For example, Eastwood shows Hoover as wanting to have national identity cards for all U.S. citizens. That way he could have access to the populace as if they were books in a library. He kept files on everyone, including presidents and first ladies and, as a result, attained a bizarre kind of job security.
Hoover is also depicted as a media manipulator. He is shown to be paranoid, obsessive and a showman, taking credit for his agents’ arrests.
So how is DiCaprio in the title role? He is quite good. DiCaprio plays Hoover as a young man, and also, under tons of make up, as an older man. The film cuts back and forth between past and present. Granted the make up, at points, strains credibility, but I am hard pressed to think of a film where the age make up is completely successful.
The fine supporting cast includes Judi Dench, sporting an American accent, as Hoover’s domineering mother with whom Hoover lived until her death. Naomi Watts plays Hoover’s ever loyal secretary Helen Gandy.
“J. Edgar” depicts Hoover as a complex individual, who, while committed to doing good, fell victim to the old adage, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
J. Edgar, Director Clint Eastwood, 2011, Warner Bros. Pictures 137 minutes, R