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Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover in a new film. (Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)
Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover in a new film. (Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Guest column

Hollywood's long love-hate affair with a self-mythologizing G-Man Add to ...

A group of former Federal Bureau of Investigation agents are upset that Hollywood biopic J. Edgar offers a warts-and-all portrait of their one-time boss, J. Edgar Hoover.

Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar addresses long-standing rumours that the FBI director was in love with his top aide, Clyde Tolson, and depicts the corruption that led Mr. Hoover to keep secret files on liberal heroes such as Eleanor Roosevelt, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

William Branon, chairman of the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation, is particularly incensed by suggestions that Mr. Hoover was gay. In an open letter to Mr. Eastwood, Mr. Branon stated that “there is no basis in fact for such a portrayal of Mr. Hoover.”

Yet the closeted Hoover-Tolson relationship was ultimately less consequential than Mr. Hoover's very public marriage to Hollywood. For decades, he was as powerful a presence there as any actor, director or producer.

The controversial FBI head, who ran the agency from 1924 until his death in 1972, worked tirelessly to make sure movies and TV shows presented him and his lawmen in a heroic light. This also got him entangled with show-business politics, and he became a pivotal figure in the anti-communist purge of the industry in the late 1940s and 1950s. Working with studio heads to blacklist filmmakers, Mr. Hoover ensured that his name would long be infamous in moviemaking circles. The Eastwood-DiCaprio flick is the logical outcome.

Mr. Hoover became an icon during the Great Depression, when America was desperately in need of champions of public virtue. The recently ended Prohibition experiment had led to a massive increase in the power of organized crime, as gangsters such as Al Capone corrupted the police departments of cities such as Chicago and made it difficult for many Americans to trust local law enforcement.

Mr. Hoover and the FBI stepped into this vacuum, presenting themselves as an incorruptible national police force that could take on desperados such as Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger. Working with the Roosevelt administration, he got Congress to give the FBI broad police powers.

As a reformer risking his life in a war against crime, the Hoover of the 1930s was perfectly cast to be a movie hero. The first major movie to lionize him was the 1935 James Cagney film G-Men, with a Hoover figure demanding that Congress “arm government agents … and not just with revolvers! If these gangsters want to use machine guns, give the special agents machine guns … shotguns … tear gas and everything else! This is war!”

The mythic G-Man of Hollywood was part Sherlock Holmes, part super-soldier and part secret agent. University-educated, the G-Man used the latest technology, from fingerprinting to wiretapping, yet he was no lab rat: He could man a machine gun or duke it out with the bad guys.

The cult of the FBI would flourish on the big screen for decades, spilling over onto radio, TV and comic books. As a master of merchandising and publicity, Mr. Hoover had more in common with Hollywood titans such as Walt Disney than with traditional police reformers. (Appropriately, he made Mickey Mouse's master a “special agent” of the FBI.)

Historian Richard Gid Powers argued that Mr. Hoover's fame “did not spring spontaneously from the real accomplishments of the FBI. It was based on popular entertainment's accounts of those events in a wave of G-Man stories, movies and radio shows that began in 1935.”

Mr. Hoover was largely unchallenged while he was alive, but his reputation was shattered by posthumous revelations of abuses of power such as his long campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. FBI assistant director William Sullivan even sent a letter threatening to release information about the civil-rights leader's sex life if Dr. King didn't kill himself. Mr. Hoover the Hollywood star became a prime villain.

Though long dead, Mr. Hoover leaves behind a thriving, troubling legacy – the alliance between state power and media glamour continues in many other forms.

Dirty Harry and James Bond are very much his progeny. Jack Bauer on the show 24 was a G-Man for the Bush-Cheney era. The contentious late-1990s alliance between the RCMP and Disney was in the Hoover tradition, as is the celebration of nearly infallible police forensic skills in the CSI franchise.

The latest to follow in Mr. Hoover's steps are the Special Operatives who killed Osama bin Laden. Their exploits are already celebrated in a graphic novel and non-fiction books and there are sure to be movies on the way. Given what we know about the disparity between Mr. Hoover's legend and reality, there's ample reason to beware any piece of pop mythology that credits the state with a faultless ability to combat evil.

Jeet Heer is a writer based in Regina and Toronto.

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