We’re always being watched. And we know this, don’t we? We now live in a post-Snowden world where we’re aware of the NSA spying on us through our laptop webcams and the tiny receivers of our cell phones. And even if the population at large isn’t so directly keeping a Big-Brother-esque eye on us, our browsing history is tracked, as are our phone calls and text messages. And if the exact contact isn’t kept on the record, when and where they were sent is. In a purely American context, this is nothing new. Whether these are revelations stemming from the beginning of Obama’s second term, or wiretapping and other measures from the Patriot Act, or Cold War cell embeddings, or all the way back to the DNC break-in of Watergate, covert accumulation of information has become an inescapable thread in the fabric of American politics.
No one told better stories about the United States in the back half of the 20th century than Francis Ford Coppola. Whether this is the capitalist cautionary tale of the Corleone family in The Godfather, or the futility of war by way of Joseph Conrad in Apocalypse Now, or even the blemish of his flat take on The Great Gatsby, Coppola knows America for what this empire is, and the extent to which people will go for some semblance of control. The Conversation, Coppola’s neo-noir treatise on paranoia and obsession is perhaps his melancholic and chilling work in a body of work that includes some of the most cynical, misanthropic works in film.
The Conversation follows Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), almost literally. This is a picture that opens looking over a crowded park, tracking and zooming in on a few passersby before picking out Caul walking back and forth, as if searching for something. Caul’s looking for his targets, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest). As we find out, Caul is setting up his team to follow Ann and Mark, remotely recording their eponymous conversation at the request of the director (Robert Duvall) of a large corporation. Capturing Ann and Mark is nothing. As Caul’s peers remind us, he’s the best of the best.
Yet, being at the top of his field doesn’t give Caul any sense of confidence or complacency. Quite the opposite. Caul knows that his actions, no matter how far he tries to divorce himself from what he does for his clients, have consequences. A God-fearing man—one who demands his colleagues refrain from using his Lord’s name in vain—Caul’s whole life is omniscience. He’s able to record anyone and anything, often crafting his own apparatuses—the devices developed by other professionals in his field are, to Caul, junk. Moreover, Caul’s getting older. Sure, Caul’s still quite sharp, but he’s being outpaced by the young assistant of the director Stett (a holy-hot-damn handsome, pre-Star-Wars Harrison Ford).
The film begins on his 42nd birthday. How does Caul commemorate the occasion? By gently chastising his neighbor for mentioning the occasion at all. The closest Caul comes to an honest-to-goodness celebration is when he creeps into the apartment of his girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr) with a bottle of wine. For his birthday, Amy asks Caul basic questions. Most of them he avoids, some he lies about. While they’re making out, Amy inquires whether or not Caul lives alone. Caul begrudgingly answers, but puts his glasses back on. Caul came to Amy’s apartment wearing a suit and trench coat, and the only way he made himself at home is to take off his glasses. When he takes them off, that minor gesture feels so much more significant. When he puts them back on, we feel that blow. That’s as far down as Caul can put down his walls, and little effort is required to force them back up again.
So, when Caul learns that the tapes he made of Ann and Mark’s conversation might be responsible for their deaths, he’s reminded of a previous job that resulted in the gruesome murders of a man and his family. To Caul, that’s the consequence for being careless, for being too cold. The Conversation sets this moral quandary up, playing out like a variation of the trolley problem, where a person can either let five people die by not switching tracks by doing nothing, or change the trajectory of the trolley by changing tracks, killing one person. Caul could let the director do what he will with Ann and Mark, or he could do what he could try to prevent their deaths, doing for them what he couldn’t for others. Caul can never connect with anyone, but maybe he could take this risk.
One would be remiss to discuss The Conversation, and not discuss just how astonishing the technique on display is. We have shot after shot of Hackman constantly moving away from the center of a shot or being pushed to the very back, if forced to share space with anyone else. Otherwise, Caul refuses to share the frame at all. We have sound design and editing that reuses and re-contextualizes moments we see repeatedly in a new way every time we see them. Even as a mystery with one hell of a twist, The Conversation is so well-told that each viewing is as fresh as can be. The Conversation works as a slyly compelling rumination on the boundaries and rules we make for ourselves. How do our personal and professional lives inform one another? How involved do we get, or how far do we go, to prevent a perceived danger? That’s what The Conversation is.