The year is 1974. Francis Ford Coppola was on top of the world. Having won a slew of Academy Awards two years earlier for The Godfather, Coppola managed to stay on top and have not one but two of his films nominated for Best Picture; The Godfather Part 2 and the Palm d’Or winning The Conversation.
The Godfather Part 2 walked away with the Best Picture award and The Conversation managed to fade, for the most part, into relative obscurity until 1998 when it was on the lips of critics who drew comparisons to it after seeing Tony Scott’s quasi-sequel, Enemy of the State.
At least, that’s the way it seems to me but I grew up in a house where if my dad wasn’t renting the first two or three Rocky films, he was re-watching the first two Godfathers. It wasn’t until college that I discovered The Conversation, a provocative film about privacy and deception.
Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, a true lonernot opening up to anyone because he knows the value of privacy and how easily it can be violated as he does so every day. Caul is a surveillance expert, renown among his peers as being "the best in the biz." Too often, Caul isolates himself and alienates his coworker (John Cazale) and girlfriend (Teri Garr), locking himself away in his caged-in warehouse work area.
But who can blame him, really? As much as he attempts to protect himself, Harry is betrayed at every turn. The moment Harry lets his guard down, allowing his fellow wire-tappers and spies into his lair, his work is compromised and his dignity shredded.
Harry’s been hired to record a conversation between a man (Frederick Forrest) and woman (Cindy Williams) in a public square. They meander about and change subjects at every turn, leaving the audience wondering about the meaning and importance of their discussion. Caul, on the other hand, is distant, only working to get the best possible mix for his mysterious employer.
It isn’t until Caul is unable to hand his tapes directly to his employer, being thwarted by the enigmatic Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), that he begins to get suspicious. Harry’s been burned before; years earlier an innocent mother and child were killed because of a job he did and he isn’t about to let more people die as a direct result of his work again.
The Conversation moves at a slow, determined pace. The plot is cryptic and, like the recording Harry tweaks throughout the film, requires deciphering. I’m sure it could be argued that The Conversation is the audio equivalent of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up but I’ve always found the 1966 European film to be overly mod and hollow. Though both protagonists are obsessed with what they may or may not be seeing or hearing (and both films feature mimes), Caul is much more human than hipster Thomas (David Hemmings) and much easier to sympathize with despite his apparent passivity.
The bastard child of Blow Up and The Conversation is Brian De Palma’s 1981 film Blow Out in which John Travolta stars as Jack, a self- and conspiracy-obsessed sound man for B-grade horror films (trivia note: one of the titles Jack worked on was Bordello of Blood) who, while recording new sound effects, witnesses a car crash and saves the life of a ditzy gal, Sally (Nancy Allen). The plot gives De Palma opportunity to do what he does best: mix self-referential behind-the-scenes movie material with a taut thriller. Blow Out also gives Travolta his best role to date.
Jack, like Harry, has the death of an innocent on his conscience, which we see played out in a stunning flashback scene. Jack struggles for redemption and strives to bring the conspiracy he uncovers to light. He is so single-minded in his crusade that it nearly costs Jack his job, his sanity, and his humanity. At least Harry Caul attempts to be human with his sham of a love affair and his fondness for the saxophone; Jack merely humors Sally when she speaks to him. He seems unable to think of her of a love interest and, instead, only of how she can help him uncover the truth.
Tech-centered shots of mag stripes being synced with film in Blow Out recall the multiple tape players running in tandem in The Conversation and the long panning take in Travolta’s work area feels like a natural extension of the final shot of Hackman’s apartment.
Both films are technically brilliant. De Palma’s widescreen compositions in Blow Out are as much a pleasure to look at as Walter Murch’s sound mix in The Conversation is to listen to. Murch continued to weave an experimental tapestry of sound in The Conversation much like he did throughout George Lucas’ THX-1138 (Murch also did work with Lucas on American Graffiti and Star Wars and returned to work with Coppola for Apocalypse Now) with vocals breaking up and coming together; a metaphor for the film’s fragmented plot.
In the progression from Blow Up to The Conversation to Blow Out, the changing political tides are evident in the move from a pre- to post-Watergate era. Certainly in the wake of the Watergate scandal, The Conversation packed much more of a topical punch. Blow Out, on the other hand, does not deal simply with sound or still images. Instead, by the end of the film Jack has compiled a Zapruder-ish piece of evidencethe film images and their compilation a reflection, again, of the filmmaking process. In this way, Blow Out is less influenced by Watergate hysteria and falls closer to post-JFK assassination conspiracy films like Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View.
In this cynical age where the media reflects our paranoia on a daily basis and "caught on tape" shows generate great ratings, a film like Enemy of the State says nothing new in the "trust no one" atmosphere. Unlike the subtle The Conversation and Blow Up (which is so subtle that it can easily be considered dull and vacuous), Enemy of the State is painted with garish colors with little shading. Less influenced by Zapruder and stemming more from the Rodney King tape, director Tony Scott seems determined to out-do his protégé, Michael Bay, with his overly kinetic camerawork and seizure-inducing editing.
Protagonist/patsy Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) becomes the unwitting owner of the taped killing of a Senator and the prey of Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight), a government bad guy who is seemingly omnipotent in his ability to ruin Dean’s life and omniscient courtesy of his team of surveillance experts (an incredible supporting cast featuring such luminaries as Jack Black, Seth Green, and Jamie Kennedy). The scenes of Dean talking to Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet) in a public square while attempts are made to record overhear their discussion felt eerily familiar and when mystery man Brill shows up and turns out to be played by none other than Gene Hackman, the need for comparison between Enemy of the State and The Conversation became clear.
Brill is immediately wise to Reynold’s schemes, as he is a former expert wire-tapper who now hides away in his caged-in warehouse lair. Sound familiar? Brill hesitates to get involved with Dean but who can blame him? As soon as he shows compassion for the hapless lawyer his cover is compromised and his home destroyed.
Tony Scott works less on mood and more on motion: allowing few pauses for the audience to catch its breath. Enemy of the State moves at a confused, frenetic pace. The audio and visuals are assaultive and the plot is, at times, insultingly predictable. This isn’t to say, however, that Enemy of the State is necessarily an awful film. It doesn’t aspire to great heights of either style or substance, striving only to serve as mindless entertainment. The film, however, seems more mindless when spoken about in the company of the aforementioned films. The film says little that isn’t readily apparent and is about as subtle as Wag the Dog (sorry, but any X-phile will tell you that the U.S. government can do much more and anyone who paid attention to the Gulf War can tell you that it already has) in its message.
Unlike Blow Out which is, essentially, De Palma re-telling The Conversation in his own way, Enemy of the State does little with the Harry Caul-like character except to make him more aggressive, but in a movie hopped up so high on goofballs, characters have to be kicked up a few decibels just to be heard over the din.
Enemy of the State was successful in attaining its goal of being a great Saturday matinee but another windfall was that it made several critics think. That is, unless the comparisons to The Conversation were already pre-written in the press materials. Regardless, perhaps speaking the name of Coppola’s lost child will bring attention to his most over-looked film.
The year is 1999. What happened? With two films up for Best Picture, Coppola’s already enormous ego ran unchecked. After having a breakdown with Apocalypse Now, Coppola managed to put out a few more entertaining films (Rumblefish, The Outsiders) but is now churning out films like The Godfather III, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Jack, only turning profit with lawsuits and endless re-issues and re-cuts of The Godfather series. The Conversation remains the orphan of his oeuvre: one of the few Coppola titles not for sale or available on multiple formats. The artist who created The Conversation does not aspire to great heights and would be thrilled to have a moneymaker like Enemy of the State on his now-shoddy résumé