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There aren't many good movies about surveillance. It's not photogenic, for one thing — just a bunch of guys with nice headphones in a smelly van. Most of the action happens inside the machines, and even then it’s just mixing, tweaking, and the drudgery of managing a video feed. It takes a great story to make it interesting, and a near-miracle to convince a studio to bankroll it.
"He'd kill us if he got the chance."
In 1974, Francis Ford Coppola had both. He was just two years removed from The Godfather, then the highest-grossing film of all time, and before he started on the sequel, he convinced Paramount to bankroll a movie about the seedy world of wiretapping, newly relevant in the aftermath of Watergate. The setup is simple: Surveillance man Harry Caul is hired to listen in on a young couple as they walk through a public park. As he cleans up the audio, Caul thinks he hears the words, "He'd kill us if he got the chance." What does he do?
Suddenly, cleaning up audio is a matter of life and death, and because this is 1974, it all happens on gloriously analog machinery. One of the more involved scenes shows Harry panning between three reel-to-reel tape decks, splicing the different source recordings to create a master. It's technical but gripping, tied together with brilliant film editing. Like Harry, we want to know what they're saying, and we feel his frustration when he can't quite get there. He's bumping up against the limits of the tech — a familiar feeling.
A cyberpunk hero, a company man
The biggest anachronism is Harry himself. He's intensely private, fiercely guarding something as simple as his telephone number, and flying into a rage whenever someone veers too close. He prefigures many of cyberpunk's off-the-grid fantasies, working for powerful, faceless companies while holding himself just out of their reach. But unlike the cyberpunk heroes, Harry still acts like a company man. Amidst a rising counterculture, he wears white shirts and ties, firmly on the establishment’s side. He's breaking the rules, listening in where he shouldn't be, but there's nothing swashbuckling about it.
Instead, there's the tape, played over and over, unspooling a little differently each time. Can Harry piece together the snippets to discover the truth? For all his work, he never seems to get any closer. Like all data, Harry's tape has its limits, and they're not limits he can work around with electronics. Forty years later, with parabolic mics and digital filters, we're no better at separating the signal from the noise. There are still bad assumptions and bad informants, lies and misunderstandings. The information pours in, and we struggle to make sense of it. The closer we listen, the harder it seems.