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Article – The Conversation: Close Surveillance


Posted July 8, 2018 by

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The Conversation: Close Surveillance

Although Francis Ford Coppola wrote The Conversation, one of the closest examinations of paranoia in America’s new age of surveillance, in the mid-1960s, it quickly became a fitting parable to the Watergate scandal which would soon unfold before the public.

Much less the authenticity of Coppola’s sharply drawn characters was the finer details – such as the equipment used by Harry Caul, the same that would later be utilized by Nixon’s recruits – that better captured the landscape of intrusion and distrust. Most notably and the greatest testament to Coppola’s astute script is the fact that the spying techniques used at Watergate were uncovered through research on the film itself and not as many have believed through a newspaper scoop.

Even when ethics and morality were sacrificed for perfidious political gain, The Conversation focuses not on the fount of that dishonesty and the establishment from which it was birthed but on the repercussions it has on the greater society. The story portrays how easily our minds can become infected by guilt and how if the truest sense of ourselves does not win out in this psychological struggle we can come to seeing ourselves as accomplices to a higher evil, even one of a political standing. But beyond the ideas it put in minds of many political commentators and journalists was perhaps the most memorable role Gene Hackman ever played.

As Harry Caul, the greatest bugger in the country and also perhaps the most paranoid, Hackman used his ordinariness which usually made him seem undersized in the costumes of heroes such as ‘Popeye’ Doyle (The French Connection) or brutes like Buck Barrow (Bonnie & Clyde) but was ideal for the middling, insecure man with the frilly raincoat and perfunctory moustache. Coppola takes a closer look at everything in this film from the slow zoom in the opening shot of San Francisco park to the final CCTV pan at the end but he most saliently examines Hackman’s features, his slumbering posture and frightened countenance. Where the film could become entangled in an indulgent and didactic web of political intrigue instead it becomes a character study, an examination of a failing conscience in a time of systematic obliquity.

In between espying his subjects and rigging the environment to obtain his recordings, we can see Caul is a deeply troubled man. He is always uncomfortable and allows himself almost no indulgencies lest he provoke the demons of his mind. He has a sometime girlfriend, Tara, whose rent he pays (remuneration for a misdeed, perhaps) and to who has he divulged nothing. When Caul pays a visit on his birthday she wants the celebration to be the answers to her long held questions. Caul has also imprisoned himself in his apartment and the copious locks and latches are easily breached by his landlord. In the meantime Caul attends church to make confession but one can’t help but feel that Caul only sees in the church a place that actively acknowledges guilt and offers absolution so he goes.

At work too Harry can’t free himself from his compunction. Stan, his colleague, expresses an interest in their recordings but Harry is quick to refute that. ‘I don’t know anything about human nature or curiosity, it’s not part of what I do’. But Harry couldn’t be more dictated than by his human nature and his inability to separate himself from his work and who his work might be endangering. He has no trust in anyone or anything only his own ideas about the pernicious consequences of the services he provides.

The Conversation though deserving of its aplomb has also had many critics, most of whom declare the film a bore. However in its incisive treatise on human nature, guilt and paranoia the film could not be more interesting if only for the sardonic and self-deprecating way in which it presents itself. Listen to David Shire’s minimalistic piano score which sometimes offers Caul’s sighs when he is too tired but mostly it acts as clown music dancing around Caul, cruelly laughing at him like an animal in a cage. Also there is Coppola’s masterful direction. He always places Hackman in the right side of the frame to emphasis his isolation. Check out the shots of Caul on the lonely bus journey home or the way he excludes himself from the group at the security surveillance convention. The authenticity of the film is present in these little subtleties that in the end accumulate to form this cautionary masterpiece. If the film was a musical performance it would be note perfect.

Later on in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal there was a selection of films that reinterpreted the ploys which ensnare ordinary citizens in the face of political treachery and collusion. The Parallax View (1974) and All the Presidents Men (1976) followed shortly after but none were able to penetrate the psyche of the human mind as cuttingly as Coppola does with The Conversation. Be careful where you listen, you never know what you might hear.


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Written by:

Justin Aylward
Freelance Contributor

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