The Conversation

The Conversation The Conversation: A Cautionary Tale about Surveillance?

The Conversation has often been cited as having been remarkably topical and relevant to the political moment in which it was released. The film came out in the middle of the Watergate scandal, a high-profile political scandal in which President Richard Nixon was caught in a corrupt deal attempting to tap phones at the Democratic National Committee's Watergate headquarters. Evidence of his complicity in the attempted surveillance were caught on tape and Nixon eventually resigned. While the scandal has obvious parallels with the plot of The Conversation, Coppola insisted that any thematic overlaps were in fact coincidental. Oddly enough, Harry Caul and the other surveillance experts use many of the same instruments that surveillance experts from the Nixon administration used, but Coppola says that this too was a coincidence. Indeed, the screenplay for The Conversation was completed in the mid-60s, before Nixon was president, and knowledge about the surveillance equipment came from technical advisors, not from experts on the Watergate scandal.

Nevertheless, the film has become an iconic depiction of the dangers of surveillance and the political implications of a world in which everyone is being watched at all times. Indeed, The Conversation belongs in an entire genre devoted to films about surveillance, referred to in one article in The Atlantic entitled "Why The Conversation Should Be Required Viewing at the NSA" as "Big Brother films." Journalist Alexander Huls suggests that "Big Brother films" began in the 1970s and are defined mostly by their rhetorical stance that surveillance is a bad thing. These films include The Parallax View, Blowout, Enemy of the State, and Live Free or Die Hard.

The Conversation, he argues, is more complicated than these films, which simply suggest that surveillance leads to bad things. Huls argues that The Conversation not only shows the perils of surveillance, but the perils of the misinterpretation of surveilled information. Harry Caul's greatest fault is his misunderstanding of the evidence; he misjudges who is the victim and who is the perpetrator in the case of Ann and the director. Using The Conversation as his basis, Huls argues that the National Security Agency today risks succumbing to Caul's hubris: "The danger of that worldview [the perception that data collection is objective]—as The Conversation points out—lies not in the collection of data, nor in the underlying intentions, but rather in the risks of misinterpretation. Even when Caul decides to try and use his recordings to save lives, he makes a fatal error. As the amount of info society generates increases, so too does the risk of misunderstanding what that info says about the people within that society." Thus, we see that The Conversation and its underlying message—that surveillance is never objective, because humans are never objective—has an unexpected relevance in today's political climate.