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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Biopic, Historical Fiction, History: J. Edgar

Last night we saw J. Edgar, the new Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio biopic about Hoover, and as many of you know, my own YA book on the life and times of Hoover is coming out next year. Seeing the movie was a case study in the very question we had been discussing in my Rutgers class last weekk — what lattitude does a fictional genre (historical fiction, biopic) have in making a compelling story out of historical material? What can you change and what must honored as truth. The movie is quite good — as many of the reviews have noted, while showing many of Hoover’s flaws, and accomplishments, it is neither a Tell All expose nor a tribute. Rather, it is a tragic love story, between two men, and the way in which Hoover’s inability to fully express or accept his love for Clyde Tolson ruined him.

The movie is brilliantly directed, shot very nicely, in all the right clothes and locations, and DiCaprio gives a compelling performance as Hoover across time. Leaving aside the big problem for a second — was that love story true? — there are a series of smaller issues that hit right up against the problem of the genre. The film is long, so clearly you cannot ask it to have included more — drama has its demands. And yet key events and timelines are compressed, conflated, snipped and reassembled, in order to make the messy chronology of life fit the neat demands of scriptwriting structure. The traditional response to such carping is that a movie does what it can, and one hopes that the audience, made curious by the film, will go on to read actual histories. Indeed that is precisely the argument made for pairing, say, Fever, 1793 with American Plague. But I am not sure. The turning point in Hoover’s career, and in the story of FBI secrecy and illegality, is muffled in the film — tied to his files and Eleanor Roosevelt (which had nothing to do with it) and placed in the wrong year. Indeed, as I wrote this, I realized the real problem with the film: it is a domestic drama about a public figure.

In focusing so heavily on Hoover and Clyde, on the power of Hoover’s collection of political secrets, and choosing (surely again for reasons of time — I sympathize) to entirely ignore the Red Scare, MCCarthy era — it deletes the Cold War. We see Hoover’s desire to protect the nation — and a clear, implied but unstated analogy to Cheney and today — but the movie is about desire, love, intimate relations — not ideas. And that gets us back to the question of genre — surely a film is not a documentary, not a series, it has to choose its story, its theme, and tell it — same with historical fiction, which must work as fiction, first. And yet I find myself distressed what had to be cut, blurred, forced into the sequence of plot points, and taken out of its actual chronology of cause and effect. I suppose the best that can be said is that old idea — pair the film with the real sequence and get kids to think about fiction, history, and the stories we tell. But that requires a dedicated teacher and students willing to think.

On Hoover and Clyde — see this article: I think Eastwood is more right than Dustin Lance Black — Black wants Hoover to be the story of the man-who-could-not-accept-himself-and-so-harmed-all-he-loved — an old fashioned Problem Novel about Coming Out. Eastwood who understands male culture of the Hoover era better, sounds spot on to me.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Here we go again! Why, I wonder, is fiction seen as the more appealing way into history? History–all by itself–is interesting and doesn’t need a fictional overlay to teach it. In fact, the fictional presentation creates misconceptions that then need to be dealt with, and these misconceptions don’t die easily.

    Having said that, I am eager to see J. Edgar, but only as a drama with great acting and direction and not as history.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    if you pay close attention, the movie itself is about fiction and history — in a way that is entirely true to Hoover — but that is layered on top of inventing its own new blurs and fictions. Hoover shaped how his story was told to serve himself and his FBI, the film shapes the story to fit the writer’s message about identity love and self acceptance. Pay attention to the use of the letter to Eleanor Roosevelt — that had nothing to do with the rise in Hoover’s power during FDR’s administration — which had everything to do with fascism, communism and the consolidation of national power; at that key moment the movie swerves, because a personal node means so much more to the scriptwriter than the true national and international issues of the day.

  3. I think with historical fiction you can more easily get to the “emotional truth” of people’s lives. Since we really can’t know their inner lives, we make up stories to see how it “coulda” happened the way it happened in history.