Review of The FBI Story (1959)

I have a confession. Until recently, I had never watched The FBI Story. Courtesy of Google, here’s a description of the movie: Recounting his storied FBI career, veteran agent Chip Hardesty (James Stewart) narrates events occurring from the 1920s to the 1940s. After marrying Lucy Ann (Vera Miles), a local librarian, Hardesty is supposed to resign from the agency. But when he hears J. Edgar Hoover speak, he has a change of heart, fully embracing the agency. As he travels from one investigation to another with his partner, Sam Crandall (Murray Hamilton), Hardesty faces down famous mobsters, Klansmen and spies.

As a former spokesperson and media relations director, I’m amazed at the movie’s blatant promotional message. It worked. After watching the film, I wanted to join the FBI again! FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a master at elevating the FBI brand and his own public image. Every person and event to be portrayed in the film required his prior approval. The movie producer and director rewrote, and refilmed several scenes based on Hoover’s strict instructions. If only the FBI could have the same command and control of its public perception today. Haha! (I’m only half joking)

Many scenes, however, were authentic and have stood the test of time. The movie depicts the initial years of the FBI before Hoover became the director as inefficient and ineffective with poor management and focus. Agent Hardesty believes that the new director has a new vision for the agency. Under Hoover’s leadership, Hardesty’s career flourishes and the Bureau develops into the top law enforcement agency in the world. The movie reveals the highs and lows of being an agent dedicated to the mission, while also struggling to maintain a happy family life.

If you watch the movie on Amazon Prime, don’t forget to check out the bonus trivia notes to learn about factual errors in the film. Some errors were said to have been intentional, such as the scene where Hoover is shown arresting gangster Alvin Karpis, when in fact he arrived after Karpis was already apprehended and secured. In another scene, Ma Barker is portrayed as the leader of the Barker gang and directly involved in a deadly shootout with the FBI. Allegedly, she was just an old lady inadvertently caught in the crossfire and killed by agents. That story version wasn’t acceptable, so it was altered to protect and enhance the Bureau’s image.

The FBI Story is a classic. Don’t wait as long as I did to watch it. Check out the trailer here.

Jerri Williams

View posts by Jerri Williams
Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, jokes that she writes about the FBI to relive her glory days. After 26 years with the Bureau specializing in major economic fraud and corruption investigations, she calls on her professional encounters with scams and schemers to write police procedurals inspired by true crime FBI cases in her Philadelphia FBI Corruption Squad crime fiction series featuring flawed female FBI agent Kari Wheeler. Jerri’s FBI for Armchair Detectives nonfiction series enables readers to discover who the FBI is and what the FBI does by debunking misconceptions about the FBI in books, TV, and movies. Her books are available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks wherever books are sold. She’s also the host of FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast with more than 200 episodes available for free subscription on all popular podcast apps.

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