Friday, September 13, 2013

Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," Wikileaks, and the Anxiety of Surveillance

Ever since the revelations of Edward Snowden, who revealed publicly that the federal government conducts widespread surveillance of its own citizens, there is a growing anxiety and conversation about the idea of surveillance in America--what it means, how it affects us, why it is happening.  At a very basic psychological level, this concept is anxiety-inducing if we stop to think about it.

Last night I watched Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film "The Conversation."  It was a relatively low-budget film he made between Godfathers I and II, and has since become a lesser-known classic.  The film stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a private surveillance contractor for the government and corporations, who pay him to wiretap people's conversations.  He is a quiet man who views his job as "just a job."  He does not, at the beginning, feel morally conflicted about it.  As he tells his partner, "This is my business.  I'm not interested in curiosity or human nature."  As the film progresses, however, his quiet indifference spirals into anxiety and violence, and he is forced to confront the complex moral implications of what he's doing.  The film is a surprisingly relevant meditation on the implications of our current-day surveillance state.

As I watched the film, I found myself occasionally pausing it and checking the web site Wikileaks, which has become an international phenomenon for making public what governments and corporations try to keep hidden.  The most recent postings on Wikileaks are thousands of documents called "The Spy Files."  I'm usually too overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Wikileaks postings to actually read them.  Writer David Foster Wallace described things like this as "hidden by nature of their size."  But I clicked on a few of the "Spy Files" and saw advertisements for private companies like Netoptics,  Safran, and Stratfor, which are meant to woo government contracts.

As I returned to "The Conversation," there was a scene where Harry goes to a "surveillance" convention--a tight-knit group of industry insiders sharing their latest gadgets.  The parallels are uncanny.  What the film and Wikileaks postings hi-light is the fact that surveillance is an industry, and apparently today it's a multi-billion dollar industry in which private corporations compete for government contracts.  The implications of this are, of course, frightening.

The beauty of "The Conversation" is how it takes a large abstract issue (surveillance) and makes it very particular and human.  It's basically about one wiretap job--two people in a crowded city square who seem to fear for their lives.  A single line on the surveillance tape causes Harry to question what he's doing: "He'd kill us if he got the chance."  It is this cryptic statement that forces Harry to ponder the larger implications of his job.  He's not responsible for what happens to these people, he reasons at first, because he's not going to hurt them.  But here's the question he can't shake: Could my surveillance lead to their deaths?  In an extended dream sequence, he calls to the woman he's surveilling, "I'm not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder."

And here's the billion dollar question for Harry and the whole surveillance industry, the question that makes it more than "just a job": Does surveillance contribute to the death or harm of others?  if so, it's much more than a job.  It has crossed the threshold into profoundly moral territory.

Coppola's film gives us the space to ponder these deep and important questions of our time.  I think the title of the film refers not just to the conversation Harry wiretaps, but to the larger social conversation that we, as potentially surveilled citizens, must have about this growing real-world  problem.

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