Primary or Secondary?

Primary or Secondary?

When looking at movie through a historians lens, one of the most important questions is whether the film can be used as a primary or secondary source.

Though sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether a film falls under primary or secondary source category, J. Edgar is quite easy to decide. It is wholeheartedly a SECONDARY source. It was made much later than the events that it depicts, so therefore does not fall under the category of primary source.

However, the film can be used as a primary source about the time in which it was made. In 2011 and carrying into today, Hoover is seen as slightly more villainous because of his actions in making the FBI his own. J. Edgar does not exactly paint Hoover in a great light, in some of the scenes, the view of the opposing party is shown as the more favorable option. The criticisms that Hoover receives during the film is demonstrative of current attitudes towards what Hoover did during his time at the FBI.6 Because of the sometimes negative view of Hoover during the film, it demonstrates present day stances. This makes it a useful primary source about the time in which it was made.


Much of the focus during the film is on the work that Hoover did on fighting against radicals or communists. During the first wave of the Red Scare, Hoover concentrated on deporting an anarchist named Emma Goldman.7 He was successful in his mission of deporting her based on evidence that he orchestrated and compiled from various corners. This turning point for Hoover in the fight against communism and the power of the FBI is portrayed very accurately in the film.

Edward Sorel, J. Edgar Hoover and Emma Goldman, 1993, Drawing, National Portrait Gallery,

After finding Ms. Goldman guilty and having her deported, Hoover continues this trend of deportation of anarchists and communists. The events that transpired during the first Red Scare is depicted on screen through the FBI (Hoover in particular) tracking those who are suspected to be “plotting” against the US government.8 The more formal name for these investigations was the Palmer raids, named for A. Mitchell Palmer who was the attorney general at the time spearheading the anti-communist agenda. This anti-communist phenomenon is a focal point of the film, as most of the professional work of Hoover during the movie is centered around getting rid of and finding those who supposedly threaten the US. The way that the film shows the anti-communist sentiments during this period, both in the first Red Scare from 1917-1920 and in the post WWII culture was very factual to the time period. As part of the growth of the FBI was due to the emerging perceived threat of communism, so the importance that is placed on it in the film is useful in using the film as a secondary source.


Since this movie is a biographical movie about J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most important questions is if the film can be used as a secondary source about Hoover himself. Overall, J. Edgar is fairly spot-on in its portrayal of Hoover. The most important parts that movie gets correct is Hoover’s relationship with both his mother and Clyde Tolson. At certain points in the movie, it switches back and forth between scenes where Hoover is in a commanding position at the Bureau to a much softer version of himself at the dinner table with his mother.

The scene above depicts his close but also somewhat complicated relationship with his mother. Hoover depended on his mother for much of his adult life as well as lived with her, so had the film not captured this relationship, there would’ve been severe inaccuracies in Eastwoods depiction of Hoover’s life.

Another important relationship in Hoover’s life was his with Clyde Tolson. Tolson was Hoover’s next door neighbor, second in command at the Bureau, and nightly dinner companion. Not surprisingly, it was widely assumed that these two were lovers seeing as neither one ever married. Even though Clyde is a pivotal character in the film, it is hard to know whether or not it was an accurate depiction. The knowledge of Hoover’s and Tolson’s relationship does not extend beyond the fact that they had dinner together and spent a lot of time together. But the movie goes into much more detail about the relationship between the two of them, which is all purely speculation of what their private relationship would’ve looked like.9 The private scenes between the two of them were fictional, making the film slightly less reliable as a secondary source. Despite the private scenes were between Hoover and Tolson being based off of assumptions, they did have a very real relationship.

This scene between Hoover and Tolson is a brief glimpse into their relationship. The discussion about their dinners is an accurate depiction of the public knowledge of their relationship. As well as the fact that Tolson worked with Hoover, which was another piece of their public relationship. This scene in the film is one of the only private conversational scenes between Hoover and Tolson that is truly based off of fact.


A big part of Hoover’s legacy was the changes that he brought to the FBI, in making it into the organization that it is today. These changes made by Hoover are very apparent in the film and are also very accurate. Hoover introduced an FBI specific training program that was required for agents hired by the Bureau. This was a change from the initial formation of the Bureau, as many of the agents who originally worked there were un-trained or came from a law-enforcement background. Other changes that Hoover introduced to the Bureau included overall professionalization of the FBI.

In the earlier scenes of the movie, Hoover is very outspoken about his opinion on the shortcomings of the FBI. As a young agent, he works to implement changes to improve the file keeping as well as the general organization of the Bureau. One scene in particular truly demonstrates Hoover creating the Bureau that he envisioned. Shortly after he was appointed as head of the FBI, he lines up agents in the hallway and goes down the line of whether or not they will continue working at the Bureau. While this may not be a completely accurate depiction of how the firings occurred, it is a very clear demonstration of how Hoover fundamentally put his vision into practice.

Overall, J. Edgar works very well as a secondary source. It matches the historical accounts of Hoover’s life and the duration of the FBI very closely. Although the movie is set up as Hoover dictating his story to a younger agent when in reality he never did that, the movie makes sure to confirm at the end that he did not. The dictation of the memoirs by Hoover was merely a way to have the movie flow smoothly. The assumptions made by the filmmakers about Hoover’s and Tolson’s relationship while assumptions are most likely not completely out of the question. In addition to Hoover’s personal life, his actions at the FBI as depicted in the film are quite demonstrative of the shifts in culture that was occurring in the US. The scenes about both of the Red Scares and the fears about communism that the US government helped to push, is very clear on screen in this film. Without the inclusion of the wider impact of the Hoover and his FBI’s impact, the film would have missed out on the actual impact that Hoover’s actions and anti-communist rhetoric had on the American public.11 All of these aspects allow J. Edgar to be used as a fairly accurate secondary source about Hoover and the history of the FBI.

6 Tom Jackman, “The FBI break-in that exposed J. Edgar Hoover’s misdeeds to be honored with historical marker,” Washington Post, 2021.

7 Nancy Sorel, “J. Edgar Hoover and Emma Goldman,” The Atlantic, 1993, Vol. 271, 105.

8 Kenneth D. Ackerman, Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the assault on civil liberties, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007).

9 “Fact-Checking Clint Eastwoods ‘J. Edgar’ Biopic”, All Things Considered, NPR, hosted by Robert Siegel and Beverly Gage, December 28, 2011, Accessed November 12, 2022,

10 Stephen M. Underhill, The Manufacture of Consent: J. Edgar Hoover and the rhetorical rise of the FBI, (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, 2020).