I’d been in the mood for a 70s-style thriller after the bizarre Lincoln Center scene in While We’re Young, and The AV Club‘s primer article on Francis Ford Coppola convinced me that The Conversation would fit the bill. It did not, although it wasn’t entirely the film’s fault.
First and foremost, I made the mistake of watching a film with elaborate sound design meant to mimic the nuances of surveillance audio on an AV system consisting of . . . my TV’s speakers. (This was the same issue I had with Inherent Vice.) Needless to say, there was a lot I missed. That said, I see how the subtle shifts in a key piece of audio played over and over again bring new meaning to what the characters have seen and heard. It’s just too bad I couldn’t make it out better.
As I read more about screenwriting (and even infrequently try to work on my screenplay), I am impressed by films like The Conversation that manage to deliver exposition naturally. By giving the characters motivation (a professional rival is trying to get under Harry’s skin) and by making it dramatic (Harry does not want this information revealed, and Gene Hackman is excellent as Harry’s discomfort grows from mental to physical), it both communicates the information we need and keeps us interested. Other films, please take notice.
Despite the energy in this particular scene, however, The Conversation is GLACIALLY paced. I have a feeling that if it were made today, it would more resemble something like Michael Clayton. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as, while I don’t mind slow pacing, this was a bit much.
The pacing isn’t the only trademark of 70s cinema that doesn’t hold up. As I found with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s hard to put myself in the mindset of 1974 America. Vietnam, Watergate, and all of the doubt and paranoia of that era seems very distant to me in 2015. Not in his contemporary review but in a later reflection, Roger Ebert writes that Harry symbolizes America and all of its disillusionment and guilt. While I like my allegory subtle, this seems a bit of a stretch. But Ebert lived through that era; I didn’t. I imagine one day my daughter will watch The 25th Hour and ask what 9/11 had to do with it.