27 July 2002 | wjfickling
Good entertainment, but that's all
This is an entertaining "history" of the FBI, but it should be viewed as fiction, because that's exactly what it is. What else could it be when J. Edgar Hoover personally approved and had a cameo role in the production. James Stewart is excellent, as usual, and the supporting cast, except for the talentless Vera Miles, is good. Murray Hamilton is especially good in a supporting role as Stewart's partner and best friend. The FBI accomplishments that the film highlights are undoubtedly all true. What is significant is what it leaves out.
One of the most shameful parts of the film is the depiction of the killing of John Dillinger. It is portrayed pretty much as it happened, but no mention at all is made of Melvin Purvis, the Chicago Bureau Chief who headed the operation. Instead, the operation is depicted as if the fictional Chip Hardesty were running it. It has been said that Hoover was jealous of the publicity that Purvis received after Dillinger was killed; Purvis was subsequently transferred to a remote outpost, and shortly afterward left the FBI. This is no doubt why Purvis was never mentioned in the film. But this viewer, at least, paused to think that if Purvis was treated this way, what about all the agents who conducted all the other operations depicted in the film. Were they also completely ignored and replaced by the fictional Hardesty.
The film is probably accurate in its portrayal of FBI activity up through the end of WWII. However, after that point, the film would have us believe that the only threat facing the US came from international communism, which is no doubt what Hoover believed. Never mind the Mafia. Never mind the lynchings that were still going on in the South. Never mind that blacks were being intimidated to keep them from voting in much of the South. I don't know if the FBI had started wiretapping Martin Luther King by the time this film was made, but if not, it wasn't very long afterward that it started.
As I said at the outset, this is pretty good entertainment, but it should be viewed as the sanitized fictionalization that it is.