It’s often overlooked in the Francis Ford Coppola canon, considered slight beside more grandstanding epics like the first two Godfather films, between which it was made, and Apocalypse Now, from which we expect more political potency. But revisit The Conversation (1974), with Gene Hackman as a Watergate-era wiretapper sussing out foul play, and you’ll find a durable classic with political resonance, shrewdly technocratic paranoia, and the rare power of a claustrophobically small scale.
Hackman’s performance is so great precisely because it’s so recessive, so apart from the charismatic bluster that Coppola had been cultivating in Pacino and De Niro and Sheen and Brando — who, incidentally, was the filmmaker’s first choice to star in The Conversation. Hackman got the part and nailed it; he plays a man of conscience and Catholic guilt, described as “eminent” in his field but also reduced by it to a lonesome, raincoated lurker. “It was a very hard film for Hackman to shoot; he had to kind of saw against his own grain as an actor,” said editor and sound designer Walter Murch. “He’s not what you’d think of as the leading character of a film. Francis said he wanted to put Herman Hesse and Alfred Hitchcock together.”
The Conversation makes good use of 1974 gadgetry, and one or two genre shocks, and a unique plot twist. But it makes great use of characterization, the reason all that other stuff matters. It shows us the human connection that’s at stake. In one heartbreaking scene, we meet the woman in our anti-hero’s life, wonderfully played by Terri Garr. She wants to know him better, to feel close, but he reflexively withdraws. It doesn’t help, meanwhile, that caring about the strangers whose privacy he invades only sets him up for brutal disillusionment.
In our post-Snowden era of surveillance freak-outs, The Conversation’s agonies over technology as a relaxant of human responsibility, and truth as a matter of selective perception, add up to a very current moral urgency. As it happens, the conspiracy at hand in Coppola’s film is not vast, as in other political thrillers of its time, but instead rather poignantly parochial. “People expected an explosive All the President’s Men kind of thing,” Murch said. They got something more intimate, and maybe more lasting: a portrait of the perpetual eavesdropper as solitary, alienated everyman.