[On March 18th, 1915, novelist Richard Condon was born—so in honor of the 100th birthday of this talented American writer, this week I’ll AmericanStudy political thrillers, one of the genres in which he wrote most prolifically. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post, so please share your own thrilling texts and takes in comments!]
On an underrated political thriller that’s as prescient as it is paranoid.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is a non-political thriller that became almost inevitably political through forces outside of its control. Coppola had written a screenplay about a wiretapping and surveillance expert who gets entangled in potentially illegal and dangerous activities in the mid-1960s, and had made the film (which stars Gene Hackman in one of his career-best performances as protagonist Harry Caul) well before the Watergate scandal truly exploded. But by the time the film appeared in April 1974, the scandal had reached its peak (Nixon would resign less than four months later), and both audiences and critics (then and ever since) could not help connecting the film’s depictions of the technologies, possibilities, and ethical and personal dangers of wiretapping to the actions and issues at Watergate’s core. The Conversation is great enough to stand on its own as a psychological thriller, but the coincidence of its timing has made it an enduringly political one as well.
Although Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998) is not in any explicit way a sequel to Coppola’s film, the aging, cynical surveillance expert played in Enemy by Gene Hackman seems clearly to be in direct conversation with Hackman’s more idealistic character from that prior story (if he is not indeed supposed to be an older version of the same man). One of the key changes across the two films and their time periods, of course—and one foreshadowed by that very Watergate scandal—is that wiretapping and surveillance have gone from a specialized field practiced by highly trained individuals like Caul to a ubiquitous part of our society, culture, and government. As a result, while Conversation focuses on its specialized expert as he gradually realizes that he is not nearly as in control of his technologies and world as he had believed, Enemy’s protagonist (played by Will Smith) is much more of a non-technological everyman from the start, one who finds himself under surveillance and turns to Hackman’s character for help surviving and defeating that ubiquitous surveillance state.
In 1998 (and I saw Enemy in theaters so I know whereof I speak), the film’s portrayal of the absolute reach and unimpeded power of that surveillance state, embodied by both its villainous NSA official (played to evil perfection by Jon Voight) and his willing underlings (played by a who’s who of young actosr including Jack Black, Barry Pepper, and Jamie Kennedy), felt extreme and paranoid, a communal extension of the final scene of The Conversation (in which Hackman’s character literally tears apart his own home in search of a non-existent wiretap). Yet the subsequent two decades have demonstrated time and again both the current reality of that surveillance state and its willingness and desire to extend its reach even further (cf. the FBI’s current attempt to force Apple to provide the tools through which the agency would be able to access all iPhones). Indeed, perhaps the only aspect of Enemy of the State that feels fantastic or even improbable when viewed from 2016 is that Smith’s character is able (with Hackman’s help and some clever twists and turns I won’t spoil here) to defeat the NSA and return to a normal, apparently surveillance-free life.
Last thriller tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on these thrillers? Others you’d highlight for the weekend post?
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