‘J. Edgar’: Making History With History

John Edgar Hoover founded the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which, among other things led the United States into a new era of surveillance. He is portrayed, by all accounts, as having been completely consumed by his career, though this may have been due to the unbearable oppression he faced as a gay man in Washington D.C. in the 1930’s. Perhaps, if he had been able to live his own life openly, he might not have had so much time on his hands to actively steal documents from cultural and educational institutions and prosecute people for their political beliefs. His is a history of personal, sexual, spiritual frustration, and these points are not only captured but fleshed out in Clint Eastwood’s 2011 biopic ‘J. Edgar’.

It is assumed in this film that there was a time when Hoover might have tried to release himself from the burden of secrecy surrounding his sexuality, in a wholesome way- by telling his mother. He says “Mother, I do not like to dance with girls…”  and Mother responds: “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son”. She then stands up and teaches her middle-aged, socially awkward son to dance. He never again “danced” with a girl. His lover, in the film, is his closest workmate- an invaluable possession: a man who knew him through and through, and could keep up with his constant urge to decontaminate society of all present deviant forces. Clyde Tolson stayed by his side until his death, then moved into his house and even openly accepted the flag that was draped over his casket at his funeral.

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This movie calls into question a very interesting series of events that seem to play on repeat throughout history, in many different settings of power: why do people who take a lead so often commit their powers to control rather than the common good? One would think that maintaining a position of authority would allow the authority to make change happen, but the change is often more of the usual, and we hear or see demonstrated this notion that “one person can’t change the world.” What good is it to have power if you can’t do what needs to be done for things to work for people?

Hoover changed plenty, and considered his actions absolute improvements on a crumbling legal and governmental foundation. However, the presidents under which he did this work questioned not only his ethics, but his personal hunger for the work he did. In the film, it is made very clear that he lived on these principals, and expected others to do the same, thereby creating a system of his own. The system was, if we are to judge by the precision-based storytelling in the film, repentant. Gaining entry to private spaces, delving into personal records, exacting political and social pain on people for their beliefs, whether or not they acted on them or influenced others- these are the marks of a system of anti-faith and fear. Hoover devoted his life to improving methods of surveillance, not reforming systems that were crushing the people into criminal muck as a result of poverty in the mind and body. Perhaps Eastwood, his producers, the crew, and his lead have succeeded in making history by telling a story that questions Hoover’s whole project of masking himself with the privacy he stole from others. This other side is that of redemption and freedom for the sad man Hoover became, with the most noble intentions.

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