When those two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, America was outraged not only at the terrorists who flew them, but also at U.S. government spooks who failed to anticipate the attacks. Decades of movies and TV shows had led us to believe that our national security was handled by legions of guys with severe haircuts, sharp suits and a lot of boss hardware, men of frightening professional competence who ride around in black helicopters and use satellites to watch you pick your nose at the stoplight. The FBI, the CIA, various shadowy government organizations with acronyms unknown to the common man—they all came with such potent reps that just thinking about them sent shivers up the spines of paranoid lefties and righties alike.
But in the wake of the attacks, we have found ourselves protected by squads of Harry Cauls. The protagonist of Francis Ford Coppola's brilliant 1974 thriller The Conversation, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a legend in the surveillance industry. But as we watch him in action, we soon learn that he is a just barely competent wretch, an all-too-average Joe who would have done himself a favor by going into real estate or becoming a bus driver instead of getting involved in such a high-stakes game. And the stakes are high indeed; a case Harry worked on years ago resulted in the death of a woman and child, and now he has reason to believe his latest investigation will get a young couple killed.
While Harry works for corporations and not the government, his earnest, incompetent snoopiness feels strangely familiar in the wake of Watergate and Waco and Sept. 11. The film is particularly remarkable for having been made so soon after the Watergate scandal, asking its audience to find some sympathy for one of the era's most despised devils, the phone-tapping, bug-planting eavesdropper. And sympathize we do—even if we find Harry's job repugnant, he's such a sad, hopelessly conflicted guy that we can't help but pity him. Harry takes his job with the utmost seriousness, and it pains him to hear his partner, Stan (John Cazale), make light of their work, but if so much didn't hang on Harry's actions, his bumbling would be the stuff of comedy. He's such a bad snooper that his mistress (Teri Garr) recognizes that it's him sneaking in by the way he thinks he's being covert.
Released between Coppola's universally hailed The Godfather and its blockbuster sequel, The Conversation is a movie that earned critical raves but somehow failed to find an audience. While it certainly never would have been made without the skullduggery of the Nixon administration, there's something timeless in its portrayal of a lumpy, balding, middle-aged white guy hunched over his surveillance equipment, desperately trying to tune into the voices in his earpiece and tune out the conflicting voices in his head. As the fallout from Sept. 11 continues to rain down upon us, we look at our spooks and realize they are not the hypercompetent Men in Black of our pop cultural fantasies and nightmares, merely average Joes with not-so-average jobs, and our national defense is run with no more or less competence than the DMV or the neighborhood dry-cleaning place that can never get out our mustard stains.
The Conversation screens at Chapman University, Argyros Forum 208, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 744-7694. Mon., 7 p.m. Free.