Unsubstantiated: Without Substance

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In Katherine Mansfield’s one-act play Trifles, trifling evidence such as a reticent personality, a half-cleaned table, a broken birdcage, and a canary with a broken neck lead the audience to conclude that a woman has murdered her husband. Motive and opportunity. That’s all it takes to find her guilty in the eyes of her peers. The play is written with a delicious sense of irony and poetic justice. My students at Sing Sing don’t buy it, however. “That’s just circumstantial evidence!” they complain. “You can’t convict on that!”

They’re right, of course. Motive and opportunity — and sometimes opportunity alone — once led to a vigilante justice system that culminated in countless lynchings in our nation’s history. Compounded by a healthy dose of police-induced false witness, it continues to lead to wrongful incarcerations today.

Motive, opportunity, and false — or at least unsubstantiated — witness lie at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s new film, J. Edgar. Eastwood has created a kind of wrongful incarceration inside a film that will stand as an unending sentence. Instead of relying on what is known about J. Edgar Hoover’s public life, Eastwood chose to focus on the very private life that was always hinted at but never confirmed. Books have been written about Hoover, but the conclusive evidence is missing. Even Eastwood acknowledges in this film that Hoover’s official biography may have been full of inaccuracies. The people who might have known the facts are dead, and the famous confidential files that Hoover collected over the years no longer exist. Writers can speculate about their contents, and they have. In print. But no one actually knows.

Hoover’s greatest legacy was his insistence on using evidence-based science to investigate crime. He recognized, for example, the value of using fingerprints, ballistics, and marked money to identify criminals. If he were alive today, he would cheer the use of DNA evidence. His was a bureau of investigation first and foremost.

“J. Edgar” ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

His not-so-great legacy was his willingness to trample constitutional rights in his march to justice. He was determined to protect America from political subversives, kidnappers, and organized crime rings. To do this he needed to create a public outcry that would (to paraphrase Ben Franklin) make additional security seem worth the cost of essential liberty. Several early scenes in J. Edgar emphasize Hoover’s disregard for constitutional rights. Again, if he were alive today, he would probably be at the forefront of Homeland Security and the TSA.

With Eastwood as director, Leonardo DiCaprio as actor, and the most influential law enforcement leader of the 20th century as its subject, J. Edgar, which opened this weekend, ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

Much of the creepiness comes from the way Eastwood portrays Hoover's relationships with his mother (Judi Dench); his secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and his lifelong friend and right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Fighting crime gets short shrift in this film that focuses on speculations about Hoover's private life. Eastwood pays very little attention to Hoover’s work in the Bureau, except to show how Hoover manipulated public opinion about crime to federalize the FBI and expand his power.

Arrests of notorious criminals in the 1930s are presented as photo ops for Hoover. The Kennedy assassination is mentioned, but receives less than two minutes of screen time. The Lindbergh kidnapping weaves throughout the plot, mostly to demonstrate Hoover’s conflict with states’ rights, but the tone regarding the kidnapping is strangely detached and unemotional. Even the bombing of private homes by anti-American groups in 1919 is presented as an exercise of free speech.

But what of the private life on which this film dwells? Much of what is “known” about Hoover’s private life is based on hearsay and innuendo, motive and opportunity. The film is unable to settle on a clear point of view. Was Hoover a homosexual? Possibly. He never married. He had a close relationship with Tolson, who also never married. But Hoover’s lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy, never married either. Does that make her a homosexual as well? Or simply a woman dedicated to her job, as Hoover always claimed to be?

And why should his private relationships matter, anyway? My biggest concern about this film is that, after deciding to establish that Hoover and Tolson were lovers, Eastwood pulls back, suggesting that they weren’t lovers after all. He presents their relationship as awkward, creepy, and heartless. There are plenty of scenes to suggest homosexuality: Tolson significantly passes a white hanky to Hoover at their first meeting (an anachronistic reference to a code that seems to have developed in the early 1970s); they hold hands in the back seat of a car; Tolson tells Hoover, “I want us always to have lunch and dinner together,” almost like a fiancé setting down the rules. And yet, when Tolson kisses Hoover, at the culmination of a physical fight reminiscent of those awful 1950s movies when a man would often slap a woman into erotic submission, Hoover responds furiously, “Don’t ever do that again!” What gives? Either they are seeing each other romantically or they are not. I think Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

Even creepier is Hoover’s relationship with his mother. Hoover's father is portrayed as suffering from psychotic paranoia. His mother is domineering and flirtatiously predatory. She parades her new gowns for him, dances with him, buys a diamond ring for him. He is controlled by her and obsessed with her. Judi Dench is at her best in this role, and if this were a fictional film about fictional characters, I would say bravo. Chances are that having a mother like that would indeed lead to psychosexual deviance. But the problem here is that Eastwood is portraying as fact scenes that can only be speculative. And he is suggesting that homosexuality is a psychosexual deviation.

Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

An additional source of creepiness is in the prosthetic makeup used to age the characters as the plot moves back and forth between the 1970s and the 1930s. Armie Hammer, in particular, looks like he is dressed as an alien for Halloween, or for a skit on Saturday Night Live. The prosthetic material does not move like skin, and the liver spots that dot his forehead and face are hideous. Hammer is so handsome and debonair as the young Tolson that it comes as a shock each time his character moves into the 1970s.

Much has been written about Hoover’s secret life, and rumors have entered the realm of “everybody knows.” But secrets are just that: secrets. Hoover's confidential file is legendary, in the true sense of that word, but no one knows what was actually in them, because all the files were destroyed by Helen Gandy as soon as he died. But this lack of concrete evidence has not prevented authors, journalists, and filmmakers from speculating on their content.

It is an understatement to call J. Edgar Hoover a complex man. He was a fierce patriot who saw nothing wrong with deporting naturalized citizens exercising freedom of speech. He was a crime-fighter who broke laws to fight crime. He is quoted as saying, “Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little in order to protect your country.” He was a man with an enormous ego fed, perhaps, by private demons. He may have been a hypocrite who vilified homosexuals while engaging in homosexual acts himself. But to quote my Sing Sing students, that’s all circumstantial evidence. The only people who actually know the truth are dead. Eastwood’s film convicts J. Edgar by demonstrating a possible motive and a definite opportunity, fueled by probable false witness. In the process he has created a film that is homophobic itself.

At 137 minutes, J. Edgar is long. It isn’t suspenseful. It isn’t interesting. And it isn’t reliable. If you want to see a film that presents a more reasoned, though still critical, portrait of Hoover, I suggest you rent Public Enemies (2009) instead.

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