08/09/2007 05:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bug it All: Wiretapping Redux in The Conversation

New York Times: WASHINGTON, Aug. 5 -- President Bush signed into law on Sunday legislation that broadly expanded the government's authority to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls and e-mail messages of American citizens without warrants.

It's good news for federally employed creeps and bad news for terrorists with Blackberries, but how will the legalization of the NSA wiretapping program affect the rest of us?

As usual, it's best to consult the oracle of the movies.

In 1974, when the country was embroiled in Nixon's wiretapping scandal, Francis Ford Coppola released The Conversation, a film about professional private eyes, their paranoia and strange raincoats.

The film's synchronicity with current events is, like the news, cyclical. If we take the lessons of "The Conversation" to mind today, we might learn that the cost of spying is paid most dearly not by those whose privacy is invaded, but by those paid to invade. And judging from spy-protagonist Harry Caul's (Gene Hackman) psychological meltdown, secret invasions of others' lives are not as much fun as they sound.

The moustachioed Hackman is the sort of professional man who denies the voyeurism inherent in his career; the "it's just my job" excuse is rarely so stubbornly held. But, like cats and film voyeurs from Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window to Ulrich Mühe in last year's German sensation Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), curiosity gets the better of Harry Caul.

Coppola set The Conversation in a changing San Francisco. It's the mid-70s, the free love wave has crashed, and well-groomed, corporate types are overrunning the groovy city. Caul is hired by one of these suits (Robert Duvall) to listen in on a clandestine conversation between what seems like a wayward woman and her suitor. But unlike the efficient Stasi spies in The Lives of Others, he can't be completely sure of the secret world he has invaded. With the vague scent of danger in the air, Caul's guilt-borne worry metastasizes and his grip on reality loosens.

Caul runs around, chasing or being chased, in a translucent trench coat, an odd fashion accessory even for San Francisco. As he takes laps around Coit Tower, the sun shines through this flimsy prophylactic coat as surely as his bugging devices penetrate the assumed privacy of those he spies on.

So he seeks refuge. He hides in his workspace loft, chockfull of audio surveillance devices that bear striking resemblances to Atari systems. Or he holes up in his secret relationship with Teri Garr, a girlfriend he calls only from pay phones. The more we know him, the more we find Caul a man trapped by his own expertise. After years of listening in on other people's conversations, he is convinced that true privacy is unattainable.

Is this the future for countless NSA hacks paid to listen in on international calls between far-flung lovers, or kids checking in from European backpacking trips?

In the memorable closing scene of The Conversation, clinical paranoia runs its wild course as Caul literally tears up his apartment, from drywall to floorboards, desperate to find the bugs.

Though it lost to The Godfather Part II for Best Picture, The Conversation is a timeless comment on the importance of privacy in a free society and the costs, on both sides of the wiretap, of compromising those rights.

Regardless that President Bush may be nobly harnessing executive spying powers for our security, the furor over the NSA springs from the same well as the reaction to Watergate. It is the same anger we hear bandied between Downing Street and the Kremlin about spy games in London and Moscow. And it's the same desolate pit Harry Caul sinks into at the end of "The Conversation."

Times and headlines change, but one fact remains: No one likes to be spied on.