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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Conversation is Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 look into the mind of a genius surveillance expert. It's a suspenseful moral tale about living with the consequences of one's actions. A man comes to realize that his work may have played a role in a violent act and he unravels psychologically as a result. We see quick flashbacks to a bloody assault, and blood coming through an overflowing toilet. A prostitute is viewed undressing from far in dim light and her breasts can vaguely be seen. People kiss and lie in bed together. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. Language includes "faggot," "Chrissakes," and "bitch."
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What's the story?
In THE CONVERSATION, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the best surveillance man in the business. His years in the industry have taught him to keep not only his professional methods secret but also the ordinary facts of his life. Solitary and tight-lipped, he only uses pay phones. He keeps a landline in a drawer but doesn't give out the number. His girlfriend doesn't know where he lives. He thinks nothing of being hired by a corporate director to record the conversation of a young couple walking in circles in San Francisco's Union Square during a noisy, crowded lunch hour. The logistics are challenging and, using long-distance microphones and plants in the crowd, he manages to piece the conversation together. When he delivers the tapes for payment, he senses that the recordings were commissioned for a sinister motive. Soon he's being followed, which only goads him into further involvement with what should have been a routine assignment.
Is it any good?
Coppola's The Godfather won three Oscars in 1973, and the same pragmatic, incisive, and emotional gifts displayed there are seen at work in this film. It's a tableau of restrained artistry in which Hackman delivers an intelligent and nuanced performance. He is an expert operating under the strictest self-control, yet he gradually comes to see that he controls nothing. Coppola, who also wrote the script, builds an increasingly menacing world in which the tools of Harry's trade turn against him. Using Harry's Catholicism as an ethical yardstick, the movie breaks down the man's self-serving position that what others do with the neutral work he performs for them is their business. Yet, having caused harm without meaning to once before, he is stricken with conscience when it threatens to happen again. It's as if Coppola has constructed a compelling moral universe that permits first mistakes but punishes repeat offenses. When Harry's work seems to cause harm again, he descends into his worst nightmare -- he himself becomes a subject under scrutiny. The question we are left with in The Conversation is whether Harry will survive or crumble under the resulting despair. Robert Duvall, who appeared in The Godfather and Coppola's Apocalypse Now, appears in an uncredited cameo. The movie won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or and received a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about The Conversation and how it shows what responsibility each of us bears when we, however inadvertently, support wrongdoing by others.
Harry hears an assault happening next door but does nothing to stop it. Would you have called the police? Why do you think he did nothing?
What do you think this '70s movie predicts about our relationship with and dependence on technological innovations? Do you think the movie argues that even back then technology was already affecting our social interactions?
Harry won't even answer the land line he keeps in a drawer at home. How do you think having cell phones and social media at our fingertips at all times has affected us?
For kids who love classic tales
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