Overgrown Boys: Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover

Copyright The New York Review of Books

Clint Eastwood is now eighty-one, a mellow age that tends to breed a gentle tolerance, if not sardonic forgiveness, for life’s brutes and rogues. This may explain the curious lack of menace in the J. Edgar Hoover he conjures up in J. Edgar, his low-voltage cinematic speculation on the character of America’s most famous cop. J. Edgar Hoover without menace is like Boris Karloff without bolts in his head. Not an old softie, to be sure, but Eastwood’s Hoover—though a sly, neurotic, and occasionally vicious bureaucrat—is scarcely a patch on the real-life Hoover who, as creator and director of the FBI from 1935 to 1972, once lurked in the nightmares of almost everyone with an interest in government and many more who simply went through life feeling guilty.

That was a Hoover of dark presence, a man so scary that even presidents did not dare to fire him, the keeper of secret files on tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans who were subjected to FBI surveillance because they were deemed to be not above suspicion. Suspicion of what? This was not always clear, but suspicion of unorthodox opinion was thought to be cause enough for opening a file.

Nobody could be sure, of course. The FBI chief trafficked in fear, which flourishes best when the fog is thickest, the uncertainty deepest, and people who have always thought themselves above suspicion begin to wonder if perhaps there is some long-forgotten incident in their distant past that might be dug up, exposing them to public humiliation, congressional investigation, criminal indictment, destruction.

It is a rare life that hasn’t a few deplorable incidents in its chronicle. As Willie Stark observes in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, man is conceived in sin, born in corruption, and “passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud,” and when someone looks deep enough for dirt, “There is always something.”

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