Clint Eastwood’s Dishonest ‘J. Edgar’ | ConsortiumnewsNovember 30, 2011
Much of the controversy around Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar has swirled around screenwriter Lance Black’s depiction of the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as a closeted gay man, since Black is a gay writer-director and most of his previous projects featured gay themes.
But even more important in any critical analysis of the movie is Eastwood’s work as director. Because that informs us about why the American film business
has come to a point when a mediocre, compromised and dishonest production like this much ballyhooed film gets praised for “being candid” about one of the worst Americans of the 20th Century...
Most of the film’s 137 minute running time consists of five episodes: 1.) Hoover’s relationship with his mother; 2.) His relationship with his assistant Clyde Tolson; 3.) Hoover’s role in the World War I-era Palmer Raids; 4.) The FBI’s role in the Lindbergh child kidnapping case
; 5.) The composition of a letter to Martin Luther King in which the FBI implied that he should commit suicide or else the Bureau would blackmail him about his infidelity.
The first two are personal matters of course. But before we get to them, it is interesting to explore how Black deals with the latter three since they are the incidents he uses to elucidate Hoover’s professional career...
Let us now look at the film’s depiction of the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son.
As Black and Eastwood show, the local and state authorities did not want the Bureau involved. But it is also true that Hoover had the opportunity to stake out the meeting at which ransom money was exchanged for information on where the child was being held. Hoover decided not to do so. [Gentry, p. 150]
This turned out to be a mistake since the child was not at the location where the kidnapper’s said he was. He was already dead. And the decomposed body was within five miles of Lindbergh’s home. This discovery finally got the Bureau involved through the orders of the president. And shortly after Congress passed what became known as the Lindbergh Law, making kidnapping a federal offense and giving Hoover jurisdiction.
But this expansion of his authority became a problem since Hoover had great difficulty solving the case: the arrest of Bruno Hauptmann was not made for over two and a half years.
In fact, Hoover always thought that more than one person was involved and that there was likely an inside agent as part of the plot. Hoover first suspected for this role the baby’s nursemaid, Betty Gow, who was the last person to see the infant in the crib and the first to discover his absence. [Lloyd C. Gardner, The Case that Never Dies, p. 32]
Also, unlike what the film shows, Hoover’s certainty about the guilt of Hauptmann was not close to absolute. Indeed, his agents told him that the local authorities had fiddled with the evidence.
We now know today, through the work of Anthony Scaduto in his 1977 book Scapegoat, that the prosecution had employment records in their possession that they hid from the defense that made it very difficult to believe that Hauptmann could have driven from New York City (where he was working that day) to New Jersey, the scene of the crime, at the time he was supposed to be there.
Further, the prosecutors even tampered with the start date of Hauptmann’s New York job to make it appear he was not even there on the day of the kidnapping. (For a brief overview of the case, click here)
As Curt Gentry notes, in October 1934, three months before Hauptmann’s trial began, Hoover called a press conference to announce the FBI was withdrawing from the case. [Gentry, p. 162] From then, until Hauptmann’s execution in April 1936, there was a long series of FBI memoranda marking the Bureau’s and Hoover’s doubts about the case.
Agent Leon Turrou, Hoover’s main liaison to the local authorities from the time of the indictment, called the proceedings against Hauptmann “a mockery” of a trial. For instance, one of the main witnesses used to identify the defendant was a Dr. Condon, who met in a cemetery with a man sent to collect the ransom. Yet Condon failed to pick Hauptmann out of a line-up.
And two days after, Condon told Turrou that Hauptmann was not the man he met. The man he met was much heavier, had different eyes, different hair etc. [Ibid, p. 163] Yet, by the time of the trial, someone had changed his mind and he was now positive it was Hauptmann.
Same thing with Charles Lindbergh who only heard the man’s voice in the cemetery. At first, Lindbergh said he could not positively identify the voice as Hauptmann’s. But by the time he took the stand, Lindbergh positively identified it.
A witness who placed Hauptmann near the Lindbergh home was characterized in an FBI memo as “a confirmed liar and totally unreliable.” [Ibid, p. 163]
Hoover himself doubted some of the evidence in the case. For instance as he admitted in a memo of Sept. 24, 1934 — before the trial started — the defendant’s fingerprints did not match “the latent impressions developed on the ransom notes.”
And as Lloyd Garner writes, Hauptmann’s fingerprints were not on the ladder allegedly used to climb to the infant’s window at the Lindbergh home. The local authorities then washed the ladder of all prints and failed to disclose that Hauptmann’s were not there. [Gardner, p. 344]
This is why when Lindbergh praised the FBI for its work on the case, Hoover was not thankful but indignant. [Gentry, p. 163] Of course, the FBI later concealed its doubts and made the case a hallmark of the official tour for propaganda purposes.
Eastwood and Black, again, sell the public the amended version, with both Hoover and Tolson in daily attendance at the trial, which was not the case...
If Black didn’t have an agenda, if he had been interested in who Hoover really was, what he represented, and what his pernicious impact on America really was, he would have shown us a different confrontation, such as the one that went on between Hoover and Director of Domestic Intelligence William Sullivan.
To my knowledge, Sullivan was the only man in the executive offices who ever stood up to Hoover. About a year or two before Hoover died, Sullivan wrote a series of memos criticizing Hoover’s performance as Director on issues like his gross exaggeration of the Communist threat inside the USA, his failure to hire African-American agents, and his failure to enforce civil rights laws. Sullivan also had tired of Hoover’s blackmail surveillance on presidents and began to think the Director was not of sound mind. [Summers, pgs. 397-99]
This culminated in a meeting in Hoover’s office where Sullivan said Hoover should retire. Hoover refused, and it was Sullivan who was forced out of the Bureau. Sullivan later testified before the Church Committee and gave Congress much inside information about Hoover’s illegal operations.
Sullivan once told columnist Robert Novak that if one day he would read about his death in some kind of accident, Novak should not believe it; it would be murder.
In 1977, during the re-investigations of the killings of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Sullivan died in New Hampshire as he was meeting with friends to go deer hunting. Another hunter, with a telescopic sight, mistook Sullivan for a deer and killed him with his rifle.
The book that Sullivan was working on about his 30 years in the FBI was then posthumously published, but reportedly in much expurgated form. He was one of six current or former FBI officials who died in a six-month period in 1977, the season of inquiry into FBI dirty deeds and FBI cover-ups of political assassinations.
If this film had ended with the Sullivan-Hoover feud, it would have told us something about both America and about Hoover. But it would have been dark and truthful. Evidently, Black and Eastwood were not interested in that.
Black’s agenda is pretty clear. Why Eastwood went along with this pastel-colored romance about a man who was a blackmailing monster
is difficult to understand. But it proves again, as Pauline Kael explained decades ago, why Clint Eastwood
is no artist. Artists don’t compromise. And they don’t falsify.http://consortiumnews.com/2011/11/30/cl ... t-j-edgar/