Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Edgar Hoover an American hero? Clint Eastwood seems to think so

In recent American history, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who can be called political crooks in the Machiavellian sense, have turned out to be persons who did a lot of good for their country. Johnson was responsible for civil rights, for medicare and the for the idea of Great Society which is inclusive and caring. Nixon was good at playing dirty tricks and he was rightly considered as despicable. But he did two good things which even the best of liberals would not have managed the way Nixon did. He ended the Vietnam war and established contact with China. In the case of J.Edgar Hoover, the man who manouevred his way into creating the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and tried to make it in his own image, is more a small-time demon, more like that other self-destructive antic-communist senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy and less like Johnson and Nixon. Also, there have been reasonable re-assessments of Johnson and Nixon, and they emerge as political heroes, warts and all.
Clint Eastwood, who has produced and directed the film, "J.Edgar" has been grappling with American history and ethos in his own way through his movies, seems to have set out to redeem the un-redeemable Edgar Hoover in a post-9/11 America. Eastwood, like the political chroniclers, makes bold to deal with the warts -- his maniacal obsession with power -- makes Hoover almost acceptable by turning his homosexuality into a humanising aspect in a so-called liberal, homosexual-friendly America. This should put liberals in a tight spot. He may be demoniacal, but he was fighting political radicals who threated America with a Bolshevik invasion of the country. This is the gentle mythifying that the film indulges in its clever, well-edited film. Of course, the good Eastwood tries to show that because of his domineering mother, played brilliantly by Judi Dench, Edgar (a classic method acting-style portrayal by Leonardo Di Caprio), is reduced to a castrated figure who compensates the loss in his personal life by transferring it onto his career and his blind mission that he must save American civilisation.
Most Americans may be willing to believe that it is the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which are defending American values even if they trample upon those very values -- against Americans themselves and non-Americans -- in their acts of war against the enemy of America. Edgar's move against Emma Goldman, the anarchist is seen as a Bolshevik by Hoover and deported as are thousands of others. Even before Joe McCarthy, Hoover displays the paranoia of seeing the radical enemy in every nook and corner. His subordinates and the Congress members put up weak resistance against the dogmatic assertions of Hoover.
This is the surprising part of Eastwood's story of Hoover. He somehow seems to feel that Hoover has been more sinned against than he has sinned, and that it is time to look at his creation, the splendid FBI, and give Hoover his due. Eastwood cannot be dismissed as a jingoist because he has shown his ability to deconstruct history in Letters from Iwo Jima and The Flags of Our Fathers, only too ready to rip apart the historical myth-making by foisting imagination on bare facts. In "J.Edgar" he has thrown caution to winds, and he is sticking his neck out and saying, It is time to reconsider and reassess Edgar Hoover. It is a brave thing to do, to make an unpopular figure palatable. Only, Eastwood falls into the pitfalls. He has constructed Hoover story on the syllogism: The FBI is an admirable national institution, which helps fight crime in the country. Its creator is Hoover. Therefore, Hoover is admirable. He is saying indirectly that we have to judge Hoover by what he has created. Forget his personal follies. This is a slippery argument to say the least.
Eastwood hints in the film that he acted not only against the radicals and Bolsheviks, not only against John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, but he has also acted against ordinary crime, big and small, and even the Ku Klux clan. The case remains unconvincing.
The syllogism is questionable. FBI may be an admirable institution, and it is quite possible that it would have emerged even without a man of demonic dedication like Edgar Hoover, and perhaps it would have been better for that. FBI surely has heroes in its ranks. But Eastwood is looking primarily at Hoover and not the FBI. That is why, his mythologising act becomes troublesome.

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