Tag Archives: richard nixon

The Conversation (1974)

13 Jan

Before his epochal sequel to ‘The Godfather’ and setting off into the heart of darkness, Francis Ford Coppola had the financial clout to get this self-penned labour of love to the screen. Rewarding their New Hollywood wunderkinds for a string of monster hits, Paramount arranged a distribution deal with Coppola, William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich under the name ‘The Directors Company’ – which proved to be a disaster; read Peter Biskind’s book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ for the full story.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a guarded surveillance expert whose absorption in his work comes at the expense of his personal life; he is unable to have a proper relationship with his nominal girlfriend, Amy (Terri Garr), and lives alone in a sparsely decorated apartment. Caul is employed by the Director (Robert Duvall) to track two of his employees, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest). In the course of what appears to be just another job, Caul unearths a murky plot with dire implications. He is faced with a moral quandary; to maintain a professional distance and hand over the tape of Ann and Mark’s conversation to the Director as scheduled, or heed his conscience and intervene.

The complexity of Coppola’s taut screenplay is brought to life by Bill Butler’s chilly, clinical photography; matching the austerity of Caul’s demeanour. David Shire’s plaintive, foreboding score is equally effective in this regard, its haunting piano spirals reverberating through the empty spaces that Caul haunts. Walter Murch’s dense, overlapping sound editing is put to splendid use in the scenes where Caul slowly assembles the tape, expertly mimicking the alchemy of his craft. Coppola’s direction has a focus and restraint that is absent from much of his subsequent work, his shot selections completely in keeping with the tenor of the piece. Caul is seldom seen in the foreground; a conscious decision is made to shoot him in an array of medium and longs shots, to underline his anonymity by submerging him in his surroundings – as well as remind us that we are voyeurs by choice, not profession.

Hackman is the film’s lynchpin, turning in a compelling, nuanced performance as far away from the foul-mouthed swagger of ‘Popeye’ Doyle as it’s possible to get; an important stage in his development that dispelled once and for all the nagging suspicion he was little more than a brawny everyman. While propagating the image of a coldly rational loner who ‘doesn’t know anything about human nature’, Caul is in fact an emotionally fraught, short-tempered, thin-skinned man beset by self-loathing, envy and guilt. Hackman perfectly captures this dichotomy, depicting the flawed, tortured Caul’s inner turmoil and transformation with a subtlety that is so often absent from the trite Hollywood third-act ‘epiphany’. ‘The Conversation’ features a glut of adept supporting performances from some of the finest character actors of their generation: John Cazale as the uncouth, lackadaisical Stan, Allan Garfield as Bernie, Caul’s cocksure, combative rival; typically accomplished turns from Coppola regulars Duvall and Forrest and even a brief appearance by a pre-Han Solo Harrison Ford as the Director’s arrogant underling.

Coppola’s fascination with Catholic ritual is in evidence throughout; but where those sacraments were used in ‘The Godfather’ as a trope to juxtapose virtuous words with murderous deeds, they are invoked in ‘The Conversation’ to grapple with notions of culpability and absolution. Caul’s outward piety is central to his self-perception; the last vestige of a humanity that has been stripped away by years of subservience to his career. He sees saving Ann and Mark from the nefarious designs of the Director as the ultimate act of expiation, the only thing that can atone for his past misdeeds, and sets about doing so with a recklessness that goes against his instincts. But as with every assignment he takes, he is only privy to one side of the story, lending an uncharacteristic degree of credence to what is captured in the recordings.

Metaphor abounds in ‘The Conversation’. The saxophone Caul plays on his own each evening hints at a side that is hidden from the exterior world; a more expansive, emotional self he has been forced to suppress in order to survive in his chosen field, a thwarted ambition he can never fully abandon. The empty warehouse where Caul works symbolises the single-minded, ascetic shell of an existence he leads; the bus where the lights begin to flicker then plunge him into darkness indicative of a life lived in the shadows. Caul’s intrinsic nature is defined in the scene where the Director’s underling leaves him alone in his office and he immediately makes for the telescope by the window; he is someone who is empowered by watching life from a comfortable distance.

‘The Conversation’ remains an enigmatic, uncompromising highlight of Coppola’s oeuvre; an enduring work of maturity and intricacy; as much a study of spiritual redemption as an exploration of post-Watergate paranoia in the vein of Alan J. Pakula. The film was conceived as the Watergate scandal was raging and released just months before Richard Nixon’s resignation. Of course, it is informed by this unfolding national infamy, but only in an abstract sense, embodying the feelings of cynicism and dread that characterized the Zeitgeist. We can only speculate what could have been if Coppola hadn’t squandered a fortune and succumbed to madness in the wilds of the Philippines shooting ‘Apocalypse Now’; he may have still had the means and the desire to produce films of this calibre on a regular basis.

Just another quiet night in for Harry Caul.


F.T.A. (1972)

5 Jan

Before she hawked cosmetics, became a workout queen or married a billionaire media mogul, Jane Fonda was ‘Hanoi Jane’, a Hollywood radical whose heated polemics against the Vietnam war made her a bête noire of the right and propelled her to the upper echelons of Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies’ list, joining Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Gregory Peck and Bill Cosby. She was branded a traitor for visiting Hanoi as the conflict’s endgame was unfolding, resulting in ‘F.T.A.’ being withdrawn from theatres after just a week.

Keen to escape the dynastic shadow of their famous name, the Fonda siblings actively engaged with the burgeoning counterculture and developed a social conscience which informed the work they did. Such flagrant partisanship was anathema to their venerable father, a small-l liberal who condemned his errant progeny for their extremism. The more they became associated with their activism, the more it was conflated with their onscreen personae.

‘F.T.A.’ – standing for Free the Army, or Fuck the Army – is probably the clearest expression of this synthesis. The film follows Fonda, Donald Sutherland et al. on a tour of military bases on the Pacific Rim, performing ‘political vaudeville’ for the dejected GIs fighting a protracted and increasingly unpopular war – sound familiar? Satirical skits and politically charged balladry from the likes of folk singer Len Chandler are interspersed with testimony from the ‘grunts’.

Depending on your political leanings, you’ll either find ‘F.T.A.’ an inspirational reminder of a time when dissidence was deemed the only moral recourse, or an infuriating example of privileged dilettantes jumping on the bandwagon and feigning solidarity with small sections of the military for career gain. Nevertheless, ‘F.T.A.’ is a valuable social document, capturing the disenchantment of those soldiers who believed the ‘red menace’ to be a flimsy pretext for an imperialist intervention, and that in their desire to escape poverty and/or serve their country, they had been exploited.

Much of the content of the show relates to the daily lives of the troops, which no doubt articulated their frustrations but obviously mitigates its impact and appeal to those on the outside looking in. Granted, these shows were never intended for a mass audience, but it does feel like listening to a string on in-jokes one isn’t privy to. Some of the most affecting moments in ‘F.T.A.’ are those involving the soldiers themselves, ranging from militant inner city blacks who feel a kinship with the Vietnamese to small-town Southern boys whose eyes have been opened by the grisly realities of war. The film would have been more coherent if it had focused on these interviews, rather than using them as a bridging device for the travelogue segments.

The trip to the US base in Okinawa provides a wider perspective for the political landscape in South-East Asia. Much like Vietnam, the strategically important island is a pawn in a wider struggle, passing from one sphere of influence to the next. The scenes in the Philippines are a powerful allegory for US economic imperialism, capturing slum dwellings in the shadow of a Coca-Cola hoarding and a totemic giant Coke bottle planted by the roadside. ‘F.T.A.’ is at its best when it is documenting the interaction between the bases and the life surrounding them.

Sutherland is a brooding, ornery presence, highlighting what a perfect fit he was for Hawkeye Pierce in ‘MASH’ (1970). Reciting passages from Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ (1939) in his sonorous, lyrical timbre, Sutherland brings a sombre air to the merriment, lending gravitas to the revelry. One of the more paradoxical moments occurs when a group of hecklers interrupts Sutherland – it struck me as bizarre and left a sour taste that rather than engage these dissenting voices, they are swiftly ejected for presenting an opposing viewpoint.

‘F.T.A.’ has much to say about the double standards of the military hierarchy and how the prejudices and iniquities of wider society are writ large on the chain of command. There are tales of racist invective being used with impunity, female soldiers being told that they are there solely to provide entertainment for their male counterparts and officers living in conspicuous opulence. This polarity is a microcosm for the upheavals occurring at home, where opposition to the war dovetailed into class, racial and generational tension.

Whatever the intentions of those involved, the F.T.A. tour serves to remind us how timid and cosseted today’s young entertainers are, shying away from using their influence to stand up to injustice. After all, dissent is a bad career move.

Hanoi Jane in full revolutionary mode. Don't worry, she's a born-again Christian now.