Movies

Was J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation the Real Public Enemy?

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Michael Mann's Public Enemies, which hits theaters today, might be the best action movie of the summer (I'm holding off final judgment until I see The Hurt Locker). But unlike most blockbuster shoot-em-ups, which tend to revel in cartoonish, over-the-top violence, Public Enemies takes its violence a little more seriously. The movie's gunplay is certainly stylish and cinematic, but Mann also manages to imbue the bloodshed with moral gravity — in part by taking a cold look at the way the criminal investigators handled the case.

What's particularly striking is the film's portrayal of the cruelty and harsh methods employed by J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation. Hoover, in the midst of a campaign to expand the reach and power of his agency, is shown ordering the Bureau's lead agent on the Dillinger case, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), to do whatever it takes to create informants — in other words, to use tough pressure tactics against those who might reveal Dillinger's whereabouts. (Purvis ends up threatening a madam in Dillinger's circle with deportation if she doesn't rat; her cooperation eventually leads to Dillinger's death.) Worse is how one of Purvis's team treats Dillinger's flame, Billie Frechette. She's beaten in the interrogation room (though this produces no useful information), evidently a victim of Hoover's power-driven "whatever it takes" attitude.

Dillinger and his crew aren't squeaky clean nice guys by any means (one of his henchmen, in particular, is portrayed as an unhinged psychopath), but it appeared fairly clear which side Mann ultimately sympathized with, and the brutality of the young, aggressive Hoover and his unchecked agency seemed to be a significant part of the reason why. 

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  1. IIRC, the madam sang but ended up getting deported anyway.

  2. Can a movie released in October (which The Hurt Locker is scheduled to) really count as a summer action movie?

  3. It should also be noted that Hoover ran Purvis out of the FBI because he felt his fame was getting in the way of Hoover’s .

    It was a rougher world back then. While I won’t condone the FBI’s actions, they were no different than what pretty much every police department at the time was doing. I guess since this movie can blame everything on the evil Hoover, the PC myth that the US never roughed up Prisoners, or shot them or tortured them before the evil George Bush can be left in tact.

  4. Heh…some things never change.

  5. A little off topic, but an early morning drug raid in Lawrenceville, GA proves that Ryan Frederik was right to pull the trigger. I’m waiting for Radley’s report on the circumstances.

  6. The question does not even need to be asked.

  7. Your feminine charms won’t work on Hoover, missy.

  8. Was Hoover a full fledged queer, or just a cross-dresser?

  9. Warty,

    He lived with a male companion for years.

  10. Warty, there’s your census occupation: “Male Companion.”

  11. before the evil George Bush can be left in tact.

    There was no evil before GW Bush an K Rove! If the wise Al Gore or John Kerry had been elected, the earth would have remained Eden.

  12. Nope. Sorry, wrong. He lived with his mother his whole life, and had a “friend” for years that he took to every social function and on every trip. Clyde Tolson.

  13. Wiki:

    When J. Edgar Hoover died, Clyde Tolson inherited his estate of some USD $551,000 and moved into his house; he accepted the U.S. flag draped on Hoover’s coffin. Tolson’s grave is a few yards from Hoover’s grave in the Congressional Cemetery.

  14. The world would be so much better if we had more Dillingers and fewer Hoovers.

  15. The Chad,

    Hurt Locker was in limited release (NY, LA, Chi) last Friday. Move out of the sticks.

  16. If he was gay, Hoover’s obsessive hunt for the reputedly well-hung Dillinger becomes something fit for a Logo TV series. Poor, neglected Clyde could be the lead character.

    Theme song: Devo cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

  17. Hugh, what kind of advice are you giving to The Chad? You think he should move to one of the aformentioned cesspools of communism and corruption?

  18. He was fucking a dude named Clyde? What a fag.

  19. Seattle, San Fran, Boston, DC, Miami, etc, are the sticks now?

  20. No way SF, the theme song is clearly Jocko Homo.

  21. Variation on SF’s theme:

    J. Edgar, enthralled after being sated by Dillinger’s deoxyribonucleic acid, tells Tolson “I’ve got a headache tonight.”

    Theme: Ebony wanting to be Ivory’s “Beat It.”

  22. No way SF, the theme song is clearly Jocko Homo.

    No, no…go for the irony and use “Girl U Want”.

  23. Or “Lola.” And you have Coca-Cola product placement built right in.

  24. “But unlike most blockbuster shoot-em-ups, which tend to revel in cartoonish, over-the-top violence.”

    It’s grammar 101 for you, Pete.

  25. The second sentence desperately needs to be rewritten.

  26. He was fucking a dude named Clyde?

    “They stole all our manliest names, names like Lance and Bruce and Julian and now they’re all, ‘Ooooohh!'”
    “Queer?”
    “YEAH! And thats another thing, thats our word to insult THEM!”

  27. “but it appeared fairly clear which side Mann ultimately sympathized with…”

    Golly, Hollywood making a movie with a sympathetic portrayal of thieves, and against the police! How original!

  28. Re: Second sentence complainers — I could blame the fact that we ran out of coffee in the office this morning, but the truth is that I just got distracted in the middle of writing the post. Perils of blogging, etc. etc. Fixed!

  29. No complaints here. Now, let’s talk about those commas.

  30. The Hurt Locker is pretty good, but not any better than Star Trek.

  31. “Clyde” is a fruity name? Maybe that explains this chick I know naming her kid “Clod.” Nothing effeminate about a dirt clod.

  32. Yeah Mike, next we’ll be hearing about a movie in which the case is stated that devout Christians can sometimes be hypocritical, or one showing that life in the suburbs isn’t the sunny paradise we all think it is.

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