Why The Conversation Should Be Required Viewing at the NSA

Francis Ford Coppola's psychological thriller, which turns 40 today, may be the best exploration of the dangers of surveillance that pop culture has ever produced.

Technology—iPhones, Google Glass, tablets, and the like—makes our day-to-day lives easier to quantify than ever. That's a good thing, in many ways; more information about how people live can help, say, improve healthcare.

But fiction, from George Orwell’s 1984 to this weekend’s box-office hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has long warned us about the ways that data collection can also threaten privacy, freedom, and happiness. The most powerful cautionary tale for the Age of Big Data comes from an unlikely place: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which turns 40 today.

The Conversation is a member of what you could call Big Brother Cinema, which spans the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s (The Parallax View, Blow Out, Three Days of the Condor) to modern action films (Sneakers, Enemy of the State, Mercury Rising, and Live Free or Die Hard). Most films of the genre preach to the converted, entertainingly boosting simplistic “surveillance = bad” rhetoric. The Conversation at first glance appears to do the same. But look closer and it’s more than that: a nuanced look at the unintended consequences of surveillance, the kind of movie that should be required viewing for every NSA and Google employee.

The plot revolves around surveillance specialist, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), hired to record a couple’s conversation. He faces a crisis of conscience when he suspects that the couple is having an affair and that handing his client (the woman’s jealous husband) the tape could lead to the two targets’ murders. As he starts to try and figure out how to save the couple, slowly the watcher becomes the watched as Caul suspects he too is in danger.

So in obvious ways, the film’s about the perils of surveillance. But more crucially, it’s about the perils of the mindset that enables surveillance. At the beginning of the movie, Caul sees people solely as sources of information. As he says in the opening sequence—while he’s spying on the couple—“I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice, fat recording.” His professional philosophy is captured by lines like “I don’t know anything about human nature … That’s not part of what I do” and “What [the clients] do with the tapes is their own business.” Lives aren’t lives to him; they’re mere sound waves on tapes, to be packaged and passed off to someone else.

That changes when he fixes a distorted part of his recording, and hears the man saying to the woman, “He’ll kill us if he gets the chance.” Caul realizes the “he” is his client, and in that moment his earlier worldview inverts: Caul no longer cares about the big, fat recording, he cares about what the couple are talking about. With time, the words spooling away in his tape decks gain significance to him. He combs through the recorded conversation, attempting to understand the man’s and woman’s feelings and fears, to glean any insights that could help save them.

In this, Caul fails. It wasn’t the couple that was in danger, it turns out. It was his client. Caul’s lack of experience, intuition, and insights about “human nature” makes him misinterpret what he hears, a fact the movie highlights by using a different line reading of “He’d kill us if he got he chance” after he realizes the client has been killed. The emphasis shifts from “He’d kill us,” to “He’d kill us.” In that moment, as editor Walter Murch says in Gene D. Phillips’ Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola, “Harry [Caul] hears the line in his mind as it must have been all along.” The truth was always there. Caul just couldn’t hear it, because understanding how voices have inflections, and how inflections convey emotion and truth, was never part of his job.

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Alexander Huls is a writer based in Toronto. He has contributed to The New York TimesEsquire, Hazlitt, and others. 

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