Clint Eastwood puts stamp on history with ‘J. Edgar’

Big opening: “J. Edgar” director Clint Eastwood

Big opening: “J. Edgar” director Clint Eastwood

J. Edgar Hoover may have savored his tough-guy image as America’s top cop, a rule-bending maverick unrelenting in his pursuit of justice, but Clint Eastwood, whose fascinating biography of the FBI’s first and longest-tenured director opens today, says there’s no similarity between Hoover and “Dirty” Harry Callahan.

“Harry was a mythical character,” Eastwood says of the rogue San Francisco detective he created in 1971 with director Don Siegel. “He was a man concerned with the rights of victims at a time when everyone was obsessed with the rights of the accused. And his story was very violent.

“Hoover was an administrator. He wasn’t out making arrests. He had agents to do that. But he was aggressive, and he was scrutinized because people disliked him.”

Eastwood is right, of course — the FBI’s chief architect wasn’t the inspiration for Callahan, but if “J. Edgar” is any indication, the fictional lawman enjoyed the reputation Hoover desperately coveted: an iconic hero, idolized by kids and feared by the crooks — and communist sympathizers — he hunted with single-minded tenacity.

Now 81, the San Francisco-born Eastwood grew up reading about Hoover’s exploits in the papers, and took him for a hero. As an adult, he remembers less flattering accounts of Hoover’s tactics, as well as accounts of his eccentricities, which were the stuff of tabloid legend, and later his sexuality.

Eastwood found it difficult to separate rumor from fact, and still does.

When producer Brian Grazer approached him about directing “J. Edgar,” from a screenplay by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), Eastwood appreciated the chance to dig deeper into the legacy of one of the most powerful Americans of the 20th century, whose private life remains an enigma.

Proudly old-fashioned in his refusal to indulge in reckless insinuation, Eastwood makes no claims in the movie that he couldn’t support with available facts.

Though Black believes Hoover — played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film — was gay, the director says that “remains to be seen.” Black recalls, with admiration, Eastwood obsessively questioning the writer’s sources for every one of the film’s personal details.

In fact, that was the part of the process Eastwood relished most. “It was fun to delve into a character you’ve heard about all your life but never really knew, and try to sort that out,” he says. It is also a responsibility he takes very seriously, which accounts for his insistence on vetting the details.

“We’re all putting our stamp on history with our interpretation of it,” he says. “I’m sure a lot of things didn’t happen the way they did in this film, but they’re probably pretty close.”

IF YOU GO

J. Edgar

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench

Written by Dustin Lance Black

Directed by
Clint Eastwood

Rated R

Running time 2 hours 17 minutes

artsClint EastwoodDirty HarryentertainmentMovies

Just Posted

ose Pak and Willie Brown at an event in 2014. 
Rose Pak and Willie Brown at an event in 2014.
Willie and Rose: An alliance for the ages

How the Mayor and Chinatown activist shaped San Francisco, then and now

City officials have informed the owners of El Farolito, a legendary taqueria that started in the Mission District, that they cannot open a new location in North Beach due to rules against “formula retail.” (Gil Duran/SF Examiner)
Free El Farolito! San Francisco’s North Beach burrito ban must not stand

San Francisco reaches new level of absurdity with ban on famed burrito spot

San Francisco supervisors are considering plans to replace trash cans — a “Renaissance” garbage can is pictured on Market Street — with pricey, unnecessary upgrades. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
San Francisco must end ridiculous and expensive quest for ‘pretty’ trash cans

SF’s unique and pricey garbage bins a dream of disgraced former Public Works director

Giants right fielder Mike Yastrzemski is pictured at bat on July 29 against the Dodgers at Oracle Park; the teams are in the top spots in their league as the season closes. (Chris Victorio/Special to The Examiner)
With playoff positions on the line, old rivalries get new life

Giants cruised through season, Dodgers not far behind

Golden Gate Park visitors may take a survey about options regarding private car access on John F. Kennedy Drive, which has been the subject of controversy during the pandemic.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Your chance to weigh in: Should JFK remain closed to cars?

Host of mobility improvements for Golden Gate Park proposed

Most Read