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Francis Ford Coppola’s wiretap thriller The Conversation premiered on April 7, 1974, four days before the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed 42 tapes from the Oval Office, where President Richard Nixon had been secretly recording conversations throughout his administration. The timing was purely serendipitous for Coppola. The writer-director had wanted to make a movie about the acutely modern paranoia that audio surveillance technology was enabling long before the summer of 1972, when Nixon campaign operatives were collared at the Watergate Hotel attempting to bug the headquarters of the Democratic National Party. It was only because of the huge success of The Godfather that the financing came through for The Conversation, and Coppola shot the movie quickly in San Francisco before starting The Godfather: Part II. The result, which arrived in theaters four months before Nixon’s resignation, is still frightening today—as sweaty, neurotic, and oppressive as the 37th POTUS himself.
The Conversation opens with mercenary listener Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) eavesdropping on a cryptic exchange between a visibly tense man and a pretty woman in a red coat, as they walk in circles in a crowded square at lunchtime. It’s Harry’s policy not to inquire about his clients’ motives or to pay any attention to the content of the tapes he makes: “I don’t care what they’re talking about, all I want is a nice fat recording.” That’s what he says, anyway. But when a single inscrutable line in this particular conversation eludes him, he refuses to hand over the tapes to the young Harrison Ford, who plays the menacing assistant to a nameless corporation’s nameless “Director,” the guy who hired Harry. So, our anti-hero keeps listening, until at last he deciphers the ominous passage (“He’d kill us if he got the chance”) that turns out to be the key to the rest of the conversation.
Whether or not Coppola intended Harry to be an onscreen placeholder for Nixon, another paranoiac, it is difficult to ignore the resemblance between the two. Ultimately, though, Harry is a sympathetic character, a decent man unraveling in insecurity. And who can blame him? He knows better than anyone what a total illusion your privacy is. When he destroys his apartment in The Conversation’s final scene—ripping out the walls, moldings, light fixtures, even the floorboards—the bugs he’s looking for and can’t find are actually there.
Coppola’s original audience was still waiting for its criminal president to face justice, and surely Harry’s crackup was cathartic. At the very least it was profitable. During the Ford and Carter administrations, Hollywood continued to issue cynical, large-budget, broadly existential conspiracy thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor (1975), Marathon Man (1976), and The China Syndrome (1979). But with the exception of Alan J. Pakula’s riveting 1976 adaptation of All the President’s Men, no major American picture again dared to make wiretapping its subject until Brian De Palma’s Blow Out in 1981.
What a difference three U.S. presidents in seven years makes. While The Conversation had offered catharsis, Blow Out, which was a box-office failure, suggested that American audiences were now exhausted from their own disillusionment. They had elected Ronald Reagan, a sunny optimist, for their president. No one wanted to hear any more talk of lies and corruption on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In Blow Out, B-movie sound editor Jack Terry (John Travolta) is collecting ambient noise for his latest picture, Co-Ed Frenzy, when he witnesses and records the titular car accident. The driver, who drowns when the sedan careens off a bridge, is Pennsylvania’s governor and a presidential candidate. In The Conversation, Harry Caul’s biggest obstacles to thwarting the conspiracy he discovers were his own mistakes, but Jack runs up against an entire society’s indifference when he tries to expose a political assassination and its coverup. “Nobody wants to know,” a police detective tells him. “Nobody cares.”
Twenty-five years later, the America of Blow Out, with its bleak atmosphere of futility and collective denial, has become distressingly familiar. At the multiplex, you can watch a well-crafted, high-profile conspiracy thriller (Syriana) that ends with an explosion wiping out nearly every character still in possession of a conscience, including the one guy who knows the truth and threatens to make it public. And in Washington, President Bush argues that his administration has the legal power to wiretap anyone without a warrant, taking his surveillance cues (as well as some of his Cabinet members) from Nixon’s White House.
Viewed today, the popular conspiracy movies of the 1970s, The Conversation especially, look strikingly optimistic beneath their cynicism. Like De Palma, Coppola had based his soundman protagonist on David Hemming’s fashion photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). In that film, a jaded man inadvertently records evidence of a murder, and, while trying to solve the crime, he is roused from his usual apathy. Harry fails to stop the conspiracy he discovers, but The Conversation implies that the truth is out there and needs only to be made public. In 1974, after all, surveillance technology—wiretapping—was a weapon that could just as easily topple a president as protect him.