Sunday, 22 January 2012

J Edgar

I decided to celebrate these events by going to see the just generally released film about the life of J Edgar Hoover which is directed by Clint Eastwood and where many of his films are outstanding such as Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, the Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River. Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iow Jima, Invictus and now J Edgar. The other feature films which he has directed are The Eiger Sanction, Breezy, The Outlaw Josy Wales, The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy, and FireFox. Honkey Tonk Man, Sudden Impact, Heartbreak Ridge, Changeling, White Hunter Black Heart, The Rookie, A Perfect World, Absolute Power, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, True Crime, Space Cowboys, Bloodwork, Million Door Baby, Grand Torino, and Hereafter. I have seen most but not the recent Hereafter

J Edgar Hoover is a figure who many feared including several Presidents, those left of centre hated him akin to Margaret Thatcher while the majority regarded him as a heroic figure who was responsible for the creation of modern national policing methods which were exported throughout the world.

He was born in 1895 whose parents were of German, Swiss and English descent. His mother‘s uncle was a Swiss honorary consul general in Washington and she is portrayed by Dame Judy Dench in the film as a strong dominating woman conscious of family standing and with a strong moral sense which declares at one point that it would be better for a man to kill himself/be dead that become a transvestite/homosexual. His father is portrayed as a sick man who played little or no part in his upbringing and which leads to the proposition that he found relationships with men easier than with women and led to allegations of homosexuality. The film makes an important distinction between having a close relation relationship with one man akin to a brother and a physical relationship although it also suggests that the other man involved, his deputy Clyde Tolson, did hope for a more intimate relationship. For a long period they dined together every day and went on holidays and to the races.

The film suggests that Hoover considered marriage to a two years younger than him secretary, Helen Gandy and that he took her out three times including to the Library of Congress where he showed her the filing system he inaugurated which enabled a book to be located with a few minutes, but that when he was about to propose to her on this visit she explained that she did not wish to marry and that her work was her life. It is alleged that it was after this, and because of this he appointed her his personal assistant, a post which she held for 54 years until his death when she retired going on to live for another sixteen years.

While what happened is still a matter for speculation it is widely accepted that she was responsible for the destruction of secret confidential files which he used to stay in power and exercise great influence. The implication of the film is that had she not done this President Nixon would have used the file to reinforce his position.

His conflict of personal identity and sexual orientation is one of the two core themes of the film. He arranges to take his deputy for a holiday going to the races where Hoover admits he is treated like royalty and if he wins he keeps the money but if he loses the bets are cancelled. He arranged a suite with adjoining bedrooms which leads to Tolson believing the relationship is to progress however when they are together the common living room Edgar confides he has been out several times with a well known film star, unbeknown to Clyde, and that he is considering asking her to marry him. Clyde is enraged and they fight during which Clyde kisses Edgar and Edgar tells him never to do that again. The incident is portrayed as creating a strong bond between them so that when Clyde has a stroke Edgar shows him affection and similar Clyde is the first to attend to the body after being contacted by the housekeeper who notifies Miss Gandy.

The President’s men sealed Hoover’s office when in fact he had arranged for Gandy to secure the documents elsewhere so that only she and he knew their location and would enable destruction should he become no longer in charge of the bureau. It is against this background that the story of Hoover and the FBI is presented for the two were in reality interlinked and interdependent.

Edgar obtained a law degree from George Washington University in 1916 and Master of Laws in 1917. He was appointed to the Justice Department direct from University and made responsible for the Enemy Aliens Section and at the age of 24 appointed head of a new General Intelligence Division within the Bureau of Investigation, rising to Deputy head in 1924 and then Acting Director because of his dedication to work and high standards.

I am familiar with what happens when one achieves recognition and rapid advancement, there is a continuing expectation as well as resentment by some and an increasing number of those who want to end the reign, tarnish and or just control. There is also fear of the individual because of the knowledge acquired or becomes believed has been acquired.

There is no doubt that Edgar insisted and maintained high standards and possessed a clear vision of what he thought America was and should become, to a great extent influenced by his mother but also by his experience. The film begins with a set of several coordinated bombings which killed politicians and was aimed at other leading figures in Washington including the Justice Department chief organised by a fanatical communist group and that once put in charge of the aliens bureau he pressed for the expulsion of anyone and everyone who appeared to him to be working against the interests of his country, This was the first aspect of his character emphasised. Edgar had his vision which was only in part determined by the constitution of the country and quickly he came to distrust everyone except his mother in being able to maintain the standards he considered necessary.

The film also suggests that he personally decided who would work for him and who was not, suggesting that he rejected one experienced officer because he was wearing facial hair and others because of their clothes or lack of loyalty or showing him respect or because something trivial or perceived by him a slight. It is also fair comment to say that he is turned on those closest to him including Tolson and Gandy although learned to cope cesspit being wounded at times and to hit back or challenge some of his extremely risky ventures. The film is excellent in bringing out the problem that what ever one achieves remains only appreciated by those closest to one unless there has been significant recognition and even then it becomes fixed in a moment of time. The best of example in the UK is that of Winston Churchill a hero because of his leadership during World War 2 but then rejected as Prime Minister in the post war General Election and later even his greatest achievement was critical examined and placed in the perspective of his whole life. Few individuals have learned to accept what has been and is no more and move forward successfully.

There is one aspect which the films fails to communicate and this is the size of the bureau in that when he took over the Investigations it had 650 employees of which 441 were special agents. It now as 35000 and a budget of $8 billion.

Much of the film is a retrospective look back at what the scriptwriter and director have selected as the key events in the creation of the bureau which he recounts to an officer he has brought into his personal office to write a history of the FBI which would place him at the centre. There is an important scene when Tolson recites the instances in the published account where he bent the facts to improve his position.

The main individual case is that of the kidnapping from their home, the son of Charles Lindberg, the aviator and suggested in the film to have been the most well known and loved American of first part of the twentieth century. The film explains that although at the request of the President and other leading Government and national figures Hoover attempted to take charge of the investigation the offer was rejected by the local police and the Lindbergh himself. The FBI had not jurisdiction although after the baby was found dead two months later (the film only shows the skeleton which would not have been the situation after so short a time. A law was passed, allegedly at the insistence of Hoover than the FBI would have authority on the basis of interstate movement, which is also the basis for other situations when the Bureau has authority over State and County authorities which in the USA is often regarded as akin the intrusion into the rights and duties of one country by another.

However the main argument in the film is that the kidnapper was only caught because Hoover insisted that the bureau should apply the latest scientific forensic methods. The ladder used was examined and its manufacture traced although there was no record to whom. When the ransom request was met the notes were marked and their use suggested an area in the same part of the USA as the ladder manufacture and then a petrol station attendant had noted the number of car where the owner had passed one of the bills. Much use was made of the similarity between the hand writing, use of words and spelling of the owner of the vehicle a German background Hauptmann who was convicted and executed despite protesting his innocence. The film alleges that he was only responsible for making the ransom demands, collecting and using some of the money and that other were involved. The film makes the point that the kidnapping did lead to the Bureau establishing forensic science and a national fingerprinting index as well as inter state authority, Hoover’s claim to have been present at the arrest was a false one.

The films makes the point that that a Congressional committee criticised the cult of personality which had built up over the Bureau’s partially successful war on gangster crime which led to the making of G Men with James Cagney as an early version of the Sweeney which brought John Thaw and Dennis Waterman, actors to national acclaim here is the UK. They made the point that Hoover was taking personal credit for a direct involvement when in fact he was never present but overall in charge. Not only did he encourage the cult but profited financially.

Worse still he took action against anyone within the bureau who gained the limelight however justified. Special agent Melvin Purvis for example was responsible for braking up and capturing gangsters but Hoover became so jealous that he drove the man out of the service. It is my understanding that despite his campaign against gangster and violent criminal he appeared to turn a blind eye to the mafia, particularly their involvement in gambling as he himself gamble heavily on the horses placing $100 bets a time

There is no doubt that he was also responsible for the illegal surveillance of senior politicians, their wives and their relationships. The film alleges that he had a secret file on Mrs Roosevelt preventing the President from dismissing him from office and similarly that he used surveillance information on President Kennedy’s affairs to prevent his brother then Attorney General and politically responsible for the Bureau from taking control and that he was listening to a tape of the relationship between the President and Marylyn Monroe when he learned the news of the assassination. There is a comment in the film that when he went to see Nixon he was shocked by Nixon’s demand that he used his surveillance capacity to reinforce Nixon’s political position.

The other area where the evidence is that Hoover went way beyond the law and gave vent to his prejudices spreading misinformation and lies about people was his opposition to radical groups as well as extremists with the most well known case his actions to discredit Martin Luther King and his attempt to get him to refuse the Nobel Peace Prize. There is no doubt he did much of what he did for his country but he also acted for himself and in that that was also a wicked man as well as a patriot. It is accurate that he was able to hold power long after he should have been retired because of the information he possessed or was thought to have. In the UK the similarities with the power of the Murdoch family over Government, the Police and public opinion is obvious. Hoover was a prominent Freemason which I suggest also explains the power and the protection which some have in the UK.

Dr Mark Kermode on Friday argued that the film was limited because of its balance, something for which Clint Eastwood is justifiably famed for, and the performance of Caprio was similarly limited because the use of make up to make him, Tolson and Gandy appear throughout the film as their natural age as well as old. I regard the film as the best film I have seen in theatre this award season year although admittedly I have seen few in theatre. I regard the performance of di Caprio as Oscar winning and certainly do not share Mark’s continued enthusiasms for Tinker Tailor which has been listed for a raft of awards at the Bafta’s. However I did appreciate his views on War Horse which is a film aimed at young people rather than a condemnation for the wholesale industrial scale human slaughter in the first world war.

His rant against the Madonna film, as a film and as an historical travesty was the best ever as many listener also joined into congratulate. The film has been trailed dishonestly as a film about the Duchess and former when in fact half its length is devoted to a contemporary couple used to suggest the problems the couple faced are timeless in terms of being the victims of prejudice and misinformation. There is no doubt that the British Media led by government and national figures did do all they could to destroy the reputation of the Mrs Simpson and that whether she had been a whore and indulged in questionable sexual behaviour is open to question. However she nearly destroyed the British Monarchy at a time when the country needed leadership and unity. However I always thought she played an important role in getting rid of a very dangerous man who was right of centre and thought Hitler was a big cheese. The result was we got a great King and Queen and their daughter. I maybe a republican at heart but that does not prevent recognising quality and ability wherever it exists. Long may she reign for I fear what happens when she does not.

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