The Lost History of ‘J. Edgar’

A film about someone as controversial and mysterious as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover forces the filmmakers to make judgments about key historical events, including some still cloaked in secrecy. But the movie J. Edgar ducks those tough choices in Hoover’s career, writes Lisa Pease.

By Lisa Pease

The more you know about history, the less you will enjoy J. Edgar.

I understand the problems with dramatizing history. Characters often need to be combined, events invented to connect known episodes, dialog invented because who knows what was actually said in any given situation. I usually cut filmmakers slack in this area. It’s a film, not a documentary.

I can forgive historical liberties when the resulting product is compelling on either an intellectual or emotional (or even comedic) level. But when the end product isn’t compelling on any level, then the historical issues just glare.

The problem starts with the lead character. Even fictionalized, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the powerful bureau from its founding in 1935 until his death in 1972, is simply not someone I could find any reason to care about. There’s nothing sympathetic or compelling about him, nothing to give me what the industry calls “rooting interest.”

And as mightily as this talented trio tried, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Hoover portrayer Leonardo DiCaprio and director Clint Eastwood could not come up with a way to make me care about Hoover.

The way the story is told is part of the problem. The story jumps back and forth in time, perhaps to disguise the fact that there is no story just a bunch of episodes from Hoover’s life tacked together. Some of the episodes are more compelling than others, but there is a lot of talk about events rather than events themselves, and that just doesn’t make for compelling viewing.

I felt the screenwriter (and perhaps director and actor) wanted to cherry pick certain events they thought would have shock value, starting with Hoover’s sexual orientation. If the filmmakers had contrasted that with Hoover’s own intolerance of gay people in the FBI, that would have been a start. But that hypocrisy is never even mentioned.

Then, there are the (seemingly obligatory these days) Kennedy slurs. The ostensible Robert Kennedy in this film is not even a shadow of the real man, and the situation depicted is beyond belief (Hoover ostensibly blackmailing the Kennedys over some sexual liaison of John’s).

There’s a good deal of evidence showing Hoover did try to find blackmail on the Kennedys for years. But there’s no evidence that he ever succeeded. If Hoover had been able to blackmail the Kennedys, the first thing he would have done would have been to disconnect the direct phone line from Robert Kennedy that he hated so much.

The one moment that could have been poignant, when Hoover called to tell Robert his brother had been killed in Dallas, fell flat. You have to care about Robert Kennedy, to know him as an empathetic and loving man, for his pain for that moment to have any impact. But the filmmakers had only given us only an unlikeable papier-mâché Robert Kennedy as a plot device, so when Hoover callously made the announcement, the moment had no emotional impact.


The screenwriter and director did go to great lengths to suggest, in many of the episodes, that there were alternative explanations. That’s the best part of the film pointing up some known falsifications and challenging the interpretation of other episodes. But that leaves the false impression that “both sides” have been given a hearing, when sometimes there’s a legitimate third option that is not discussed.

For example, the Lindberg baby kidnapping takes up a good portion of the story, with Hoover working to establish Bruno Hauptman’s guilt, while the screenwriter and director use Tolson as a device to say, what if Hauptmann didn’t act alone? But a large body of evidence suggests Hauptmann might even have been innocent of the crime, a scenario the filmmakers do not allow the audience to consider.

One gaping hole bothered me greatly. Hoover spent much of his career battling the CIA. He never wanted it formed in the first place. His network, which covered many parts of the globe prior to WWII, already had the procedures in place to handle global intelligence collection.

After opposing the CIA’s formation, Hoover remained at odds with the agency his entire life. His notes on files from the Kennedy assassination drip with ill will and sarcasm towards the CIA, based on their double dealings.

The rift grew so large that by 1970 Hoover had cut off all contact with the CIA and refused to share information with them at all. (Mark Riebling wrote a whole book on that split called Wedge: The Secret War Between the FBI and CIA.)

It’s hardly fair to criticize a film for what isn’t in it. But even what is in it proves less than compelling. I think it’s likely that Hoover and Tolson were indeed a gay couple. But the evidence for that is certainly not conclusive, and there is room for disagreement. To make their relationship the central story of the film seemed an odd choice, especially when that is, to me, the least interesting part of who Hoover was.

Had the filmmaker delved instead into accounts that Hoover was purportedly blackmailed by CIA Counterintelligence chief James Angleton via a photo that reportedly showed Hoover engaged in a sexual act with Tolson, that would have been far more interesting angle that could have gone a long way towards explaining some of the stranger moments of FBI history, such as why the FBI sat on the strong evidence of conspiracy they uncovered in both the JFK and RFK assassinations.

In the JFK case, FBI agents tried and failed to fire Oswald’s rifle and not get nitrate on their cheeks, yet Oswald’s cheek tested nitrate free. So Courtland Cunningham of the FBI created a scenario that would allow one to fire the rifle and not get nitrate on one’s cheek: he used two people, one to clean the weapon between shots and hand it back to the other one.

In that manner, Cunningham was able to tell the Warren Commission it was possible to get a “false negative” reading of nitrate. (The Warren Commission failed to explain why a two-man scenario helped prove Oswald was the “lone” assassin.)

In the RFK case, an FBI photographer photographed four “bullet holes” too many in the pantry. Sirhan’s gun could have only held eight bullets at a maximum. Seven bullets were recovered from victims and at least one bullet disappeared into the ceiling space. Any additional “bullet holes” would have proved a second gun. In addition, FBI agent William Bailey, a seasoned veteran, inspected the holes in the pantry personally and stated in a sworn affidavit that those were, in fact, bullet holes.

The fact that FBI documents referred to the holes as “bullet holes” sparked a letter from LA County to the FBI in 1977, as the House Select Committee on Assassinations was gearing up, saying that had the FBI labeled these “probable” or “possible” bullet holes, the county could have ignored that, but if the FBI stood by its unequivocal labeling of these holes as “bullet holes,” the County should be looking for a second shooter. (No official response from the FBI to that particular letter has ever surfaced.)

If Hoover, the notorious blackmailer, was in turn being blackmailed, that would have made for far more interesting, and possibly far more accurate, history.

DiCaprio is a fine actor. He proved that to me in The Aviator. I know some people seem to think it’s the ultimate in acting if an actor can cry in a scene. Personally, however, I feel that can be self-indulgent. The emotion has to serve the story.

If I don’t like or care about Hoover in the early parts of the film, I’m not going to care if he cries later. I felt like those scenes were artificially contrived to garner DiCaprio an Oscar nomination. He’s an Oscar-worthy actor, to be sure. But I’ll be disappointed if he wins it for this mediocre film.

There is one undeniable, shining star in this film, however, that really does deserve an Oscar: the makeup artist. The amazing visual morphing of DiCaprio into older and younger versions of Hoover was truly remarkable and compelling. If this doesn’t win best makeup I will also be disappointed.

A special nod should also go to Armie Hammer for his nuanced portrayal of Clyde Tolson. I never did understand, however, what Tolson saw in Hoover. That seemed to be a gap in the writing.

I thought Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay for Milk was brilliant. But this script is just so-so. I’m a big fan Eastwood as director, but this was his most disjoined effort yet. I think this team tried to cover too much history they didn’t know well and ended up doing none of it justice.

Lisa Pease is a writer who has examined issues ranging from the Kennedy assassination to voting irregularities in recent U.S. elections.

5 comments for “The Lost History of ‘J. Edgar’

  1. November 19, 2011 at 19:16

    I have been boycotting Clint Eastwood films since he made “Million Dollar Baby” with its distortions about disability. See for good criticism of Eastwood.

  2. Meremark
    November 16, 2011 at 17:10

    Lisa, Hoover history is missing more than you think. That is: J. Edgar’s birthplace and birthdate is unknown.
    My curiosity began in the mystery when wikipedia listed two different birthdates on two different occasions I looked there for JEH’s biographic details. Internet searching for more info in the mystery finds this clue:

    The Mysterious Origins of J. Edgar Hoover

    by Edward Spannaus
    Printed in the American Almanac, August, 2000

    Further searching finds additional anecdotes and testimonies saying JEH was part African-American genetics and his birth story was a secret hidden behind a published ‘official story’ fiction. Especially I find credible the memoirs of career-long FBI agents who worked with JEH and retired in the 1950s and 60s — many say JEH’s mixed parentage was an open secret within the Bureau and taboo to discuss … until they retired safely.

    The above link introduces the concern and consequent findings of a 10-yr-old girl in 1958 who was told of JEH’s birth circumstance by her grandfather, who could have been about 60 years old at that time, which trails back to being a baby about the same time JEH was a baby. And the ‘grandfather’ stated JEH was a family relation, (“my second cousin”), which is the type of family lore regularly shared among involved parties in contemporaneous births, babies, and birth stories. I give credence in this ‘family’ account for its accidental-discovery origin, and in the youthful innocence of the 10-yr-old source who then grows up, investigates her grandfather’s remark, and publishes a book of the genealogy she found.

    At the first doubt of truth in an ‘official story,’ then perhaps any reasonable substitution or correction might be valid for plausible conjecture and open-minded consideration.

    My first doubt of the Jan. 1st, New Year’s Day, 1895, birthdate for JEH, was in seeing it’s timing did NOT ‘fit’ or ‘conform’ with the timing of certain dates in JEH’s biography. Moreover, “Jan. 1” does NOT ‘fit’ his nature and characteristics certainly known. Biographic ‘fit’ is an educated judgment I make as an astrologer who has considered such issues and formed such judgment regarding several thousand astrology charts of births and lives.

    A feature of (5000-yr-old) astrology that few people know is that the planet pattern moves forward following birth and sets out a schedule of dates of life-changes — such as dates of awards, honors, marriage(s), births, deaths, losses. The milestones data set is separate from (but enacted in accordance with) the astrology ‘sign influence’ info about psychology and personality.

    In studying biographies, the actual dates of life’s Big Events must ‘fit’ parallel with the schedule which is set in a fixed pattern for a specific birthdate. Else the birthdate is suspect of being wrong. (Or the Event dates in the life were falsely told.) J. Edgar’s Event dates we are told, (Law degree, Government appointment, mother’s death, birth certificate filed, CIA rivalry onset, and his decease), do not fit the timing pattern set on Jan. 1, 1895.

    To offer my version of J.Edgar’s birth: JEH was born in New Orleans, (or Mississippi), November 15 or 16, 1894, about 6 weeks before the published date of Jan. 1, 1895. He was of ‘mixed parentage’ and therefor stigmatized in that place and time. Accordingly, baby JEH was sent to Wash DC and adopted there, fostered and raised by (known family) ‘relatives’, the Hoovers. Such ‘removal’ is a common practice for ‘problematic’ births.

    I leave it for the curious reader to rev a search engine along the internet track of oddities, cover-up, disparities and mystery of J.Edgar’s birth story. Here, I am offering only an astrology-based perspective on the event. Believe it or not.

    I have not seen the movie and am unlikely to. My roommate did, and came home ‘dissatisfied’ as a ‘thumbs down’ review similar to yours, Lisa.

    JEH’s character and career is less seen in Capricorn (Jan.1,1895) and more seen in Scorpio (Nov.15,1894), typically. The key words ascribed as ‘unique’ for identifying Scorpio issues are sexuality, (anatomic noun) and secrecy (psychological verb).

    Mars is ending its retrograde in Aries during the first 3 weeks of Nov.1894, and Mars retrograde at a male birth is frequently seen of gay men. ‘Frequently’ as I have seen, which means in dozens of cases of clients. (In the turnabout, Venus retrograde at a female birth is seen of women with (reported) homosexual prolixities.) Furthermore, in JEH’s birth horoscope, (if it is Nov.15,1894), the retrograding Mars in Aries ‘seizes’ (on) Venus and Sun and Uranus, all 3 closely together in Scorpio and thereby magnifying that characteristic, also at birth the ‘stellium’ in Scorpio is accompanied with Mercury retrograde (which subverts) and Saturn (which ingrains). His sexuality and secrecy is the most inordinate personal emphasis, and influence, in his life … also in the movie about him, as I hear it told.

    The Moon position for Nov. 15 – 16, 1894, is 2 – 3 days past Full Moon as it moves across the end of Gemini into the beginning of Cancer. By my judgment the true position at his birth was most probably in the 29th degree of Gemini, so-called ‘on the cusp’. That time was about 7 pm in New Orleans, Thursday Nov.15th. Soon after sunset then, and there, so Gemini is (on the) Ascendant as the rising sign on the eastern horizon with the large Moon included. These particulars have specific interpretations in studied astrology lore, and details can be found by internet searches for ‘astrology Moon in Gemini’ and/or ‘astrology Gemini Ascendant’. I may say the Moon in Gemini indicates innate talent for clerical or bureaucratic ‘business’ and Gemini Ascendant indicates somewhat ‘shorter’ (male) body stature with ‘hyper’ metabolism, of a birth-type seen frequently enough to ordain statistics for a diagnostic profile of (so-called) ‘Napoleon complex’ psychology. (Wider context is found by searching ‘astrology Sun in Scorpio Moon in Gemini’.)

    I may say his biological father died or ‘disappeared’ when JEH was 6 years old, 1901. In his formative childhood there was an absence of paternal connection, influence, and guidance.

    It seems surprising (but perhaps intentional) that the movie failed to develop much of JEH’s psychologically peculiar fine points on-screen, since Hollywood is a Mecca of advice-dishing astrologers.

    Then there is Clyde Tolson, May 22, 1900, birthdate quite surely known, not contradicted, not mysterious. And the astrology of May 22, 1900, offers consistent ‘fit’ with Tolson’s certain biographic timing. In his case there is an element of Venus retrograding (at a male birth), which connotes an absent or weak maternal connection in his formative stage; (and I may say he was separated from his mother during his childhood).

    May 22, 1900, the Sun was between the last degree of Taurus and the first degree of Gemini, and so another ‘on the cusp’ (bivalent) birth.
    The Moon position was waning, past ‘last quarter’, in Pisces and probably at 11 degrees. That time is about an hour before 12 o’clock noon then in Iowa, and in the bright daylight the Moon was setting at the western horizon.

    I may say there was synchronous life timing in the horoscopes of Clyde and J. Edgar, coducive of empathy. Their personal psychologies were supplementally compatible. They were ‘an item’ long together and mutually steadfast.

    J. Edgar was obsessed with secrecy and that character is signified in the the secrecy of his birth and horoscope of Nov.15, 1894. Or vice versa. JEH’s published birthdate (Jan.1,1895) is quite probably phony, in my judgment and opinion. Other astrologers might offer a second opinion, and likely be flattered to be asked.

  3. Robert "Rusty" Bryant
    November 16, 2011 at 11:25

    The movie was well done, if a bit long. My main complaint was that they shorted the links between the FBI and organized crime. Mentioning RFK’s complain to Hoover that he refused to acknowledge them and a passing reference to coverage of Hoover’s betting loses seem scant.

  4. Iris Buchanan
    November 14, 2011 at 21:12

    The movie was geat. Definitely an academy nominee. make-up artist was awsome.
    the movie simply played on the rumors of Hoover’s sexual presence. The love was there betwwwn Hoover and Tolsen, but most likely never consumated. Clint Eastwood did a terrific job. It was not really slow, but action all the way, fiction or not.

  5. Hillary
    November 14, 2011 at 13:30

    Yes I will go and see this movie —

    JFK was assassinated “professionally” for reasons that made it necessary for his brother to be assassinated also.

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