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

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.”


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