J. Edgar explores the public and private life of one of the most powerful, controversial and enigmatic figures of the 20th century. As the face of law enforcement in America for almost fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was feared and admired, reviled and revered. But behind closed doors, he held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life. – Warner Brothers/ Rotten Tomatoes
Dominant Social Theme: J. Edgar Hoover was misunderstood. And what he did was necessary anyway.
Free-Market Analysis: J. Edgar helped create the current US penitentiary state because he had an unhappy childhood and likely lived a secret sexual life as an adult. As a result of this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation came into being and was aggressively expanded. Since Hoover was "in the closet" everyone else in the US has suffered an enormous erosion of liberty.
That seems to be the (sub) dominant social theme of this movie anyway. Are we simplifying too much? We may be wrong on this but the US Federal government's powers basically end at the borders of the state. Anything else falls under "interstate commerce."
Language: "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." Here's legal scholar Randy Barnett's conclusion regarding the current tortured expansions of this clause:
"Commerce" means the trade or exchange of goods (including the means of transporting them); "among the several States" means between persons of one state and another; and the term "To regulate" means "to make regular" − that is, to specify how an activity may be transacted − when applied to domestic commerce, but also includes the power to make "prohibitory regulations" when applied to foreign trade.
In sum, Congress has power to specify rules to govern the manner by which people may exchange or trade goods from one state to another, to remove obstructions to domestic trade erected by states, and to both regulate and restrict the flow of goods to and from other nations (and the Indian tribes) for the purpose of promoting the domestic economy and foreign trade.
Not much here about current FBI activities, including wire-tapping virtually at will, warrantless searches, expansions overseas into something like 90 separate countries, apparently stonewalling the 9/11 Commission and other researchers, obfuscating constantly over apparently fake "terror" arrests and generally attempting to frighten US citizens into believing that the FBI is a necessary operation. Is it? Here's Nat Hentoff on the FBI, circa August 2010, in the Billings Gazette:
Nat Hentoff, August 2010 − Many Americans may not remember, if they ever knew, that toward the end of the Bush administration, FBI Director Robert Mueller and then Attorney General Michael Mukasey so greatly expanded the "Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations" that now, in Barack Obama's presidency, we have essentially returned to the reign of J. Edgar Hoover, who was convinced that a citizen's right to a private life and to his or her own thoughts could be ignored for national security.
The FBI, with no objection from Obama, can conduct a "threat assessment" — an investigation — on any of us without a judicial warrant or any articulable suspicion of criminal activity. During J. Edgar Hoover's time, there was much public protest and reporting on his erasing of our Fourth Amendment's "right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures."
Because of my reporting on Hoover's shelving of the Constitution, two FBI agents knocked on my door. Since they did not have a subpoena, I told them they would have to first see my lawyers at the ACLU, at the time a few blocks up the street from where I lived. They left, and I never heard from them again, but later found I had an FBI file consisting mainly of newspaper clips of my reporting.
This is the FBI today. This is the FBI that Hoover has bestowed to the American people. And in return, most Americans are likely either terrified or dully resentful − well aware of the power the FBI has over their lives. This movie is apparently an attempt to justify it.
During Edgar's childhood Mother had repeatedly mocked another boy as "Daffy," a fellow student who was gay, lest Edgar follow in the boy's humiliated footsteps. "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffy son," she had told him. Throughout the movie Edgar's decisions, both personally and professionally, can be seen as attempts to seem powerful, to not disappoint Mother – clearly supporting the oft-promoted 'blame the mother if the kid's a psychological mess' blame game.
At its heart, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's telling of J. Edgar Hoover's life is a tragic love story and one is left feeling slightly sorry for this pathetic man who had such a difficult life. After all, the individual is not to blame for bad choices (like being a tyrant). It's Mother's fault. Or society's fault. Well, it's someone else's fault, at least. It's ridiculous to expect anyone to take personal responsibility for their actions – certainly not those in authority!
No doubt the topic of homophobia in Washington in the early to mid-20th century and its effects on the nation could make for an interesting and possibly valuable historical study. Yet placing the focus of "J. Edgar" on his (purported) decades-long love relationship with partner Clyde Tolson (FBI Associate Director) in such a manner as to overshadow the astoundingly negative outcomes of Hoover's FBI on the United States is a kind of "Look over here!" distraction and cruel historical deception.
In our current media environment that regularly uses ad hominem attacks on those who question directed history or otherwise go against the mainstream grain rather than investigating and reporting on the accuracy or inaccuracy of a given position, we have grown accustomed to being offered reviews of individuals' personalities rather than intellectual veracity.
The presidential election cycle seems a perfect example of this: Bachmann is "crazy," Romney is "boring," Cain is "untrustworthy," and Paul is, well, "quirky." Rarely are citizens given factual information about candidates' stance on any issue on which to base informed voting decisions.
"Excusing" Hoover's behavior – in fact, not even addressing his actions as 50-year director of the now all-powerful FBI – because of his conflicted personality and life circumstances is a slick way of redirecting the viewer to essentially forgive or excuse his actions.
Hoover's professional "history" with the FBI is told through dictation of his memoirs. For two hours daily a young journalist sits in Hoover's office, feverishly typing as the delusional, self-aggrandizing man rambles reconstituted reminiscences of his illustrious FBI history, always with him on the proverbial white horse, saving the nation while others paid no mind to impending national devastation – which, of course, only Hoover could truly grasp. Recently released Bush administration memoirs come to mind here.
Poor Mr. Hoover! Unable to live an authentic life, psychologically devastated and interpersonally awkward even to the point of panic in social settings, he strives lifelong to make up for his weakness by being tough on … well, the "enemies of America." In stark contrast to his private emotional turmoil, Hoover's public face is portrayed as that of a patriotic, fervent protector of the nation who worked tirelessly against ignorance to save America from any number of evils – bootleggers, gangsters, criminals of all sort and, of course, the pervasive communist threat.
At a time when Congress would not see, in his mind, imminent ruin if communist infiltrators and instigators continued to be allowed free reign to immigrate and organize resistance, he insisted upon funding for a new, more powerful office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which he insisted should eventually host a card catalog of information on every American, much like the Library of Congress card catalog he claimed to have invented.
Clearly, the film attempted to make palatable the idea that government amassing secret droves of private data on citizens is a reasonable precaution – given the threat that, gosh, anyone could potentially be an evildoer and we must trust the government to keep us safe from our neighbors. No counter to this argument was presented in the film, nor was Hoover portrayed as being considered over the top in suggesting this draconian measure. It's just there – as if everyone agrees this is a fine idea.
The Palmer Raids of 1919-20, conducted in response to bombings directed at Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and others, wherein about 500 "communists" were deported (according to the movie) became Hoover's first opportunity to really show his strength, and in his mind a white-horse moment.
Never mind that the flyers left at the bomb sites – one of which DiCaprio holds up for a camera close-up shot – are quite obviously signed with the anarchist Circle-A symbol, or that Emma Goldman is referred to repeatedly as one of the communist immigrants creating havoc.
Of course, how many Americans would relate to the message if Hoover was opposing "anarchists?" They've been conditioned to fear communists for decades, and the movie wants to use an understandable "enemy" for American viewers. It's really making a sly argument for the US military-industrial complex and the 7-8 shooting wars in which it is now involved.
Later on, Hoover gives an impassioned plea to Congress for increased Bureau funding and authority. He tells the congressional committee, essentially, 'We must stop the immigration of these radical elements who want to come in to our country to destroy it. '
At that point, one yawning, bored viewer heard a very audible, "Yeah! That's right! There's not many men who will do that!", from a couple in the row just behind. That message – "We've got to kill 'them' over there before they come destroy us in our Homeland" – certainly seemed to resonate with them.
No reason to look into the reason for dissent or resistance. The authority said they're dangerous and so they are. Go kill them over there… thank God for men like him. The takeaway message from this grand silver screen epic? Thank God for J. Edgar – and all those who have come after him in positions of power who display such courage.
That such notables as Eastwood, DiCaprio and producer Brian Grazer would bring such a film to the screen without marketing it as a fictional account of this American authoritarian's personal life causes us to ponder their motives – and wonder who encouraged them to act to the benefit of the larger power elite and its enablers and associates.
What is pehaps most discouraging about this epic is reviewer responses. We couldn't find any that questioned the basic constitutional premise of the FBI to begin with. A surprising number were caustic about the movement and about the FBI's brief generally, but it still doesn't seem to occur to people that they are living in a fundamentally lawless and authoritarian society. Can we get a refund?