March 9, 2006


Old-School Paranoia: Rewatching Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 wiretap masterpiece. (Benjamin Strong, March 9, 2006, Slate)

What a difference three U.S. presidents in seven years makes. While The Conversation had offered catharsis, Blow Out, which was a box-office failure, suggested that American audiences were now exhausted from their own disillusionment. They had elected Ronald Reagan, a sunny optimist, for their president. No one wanted to hear any more talk of lies and corruption on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In Blow Out, B-movie sound editor Jack Terry (John Travolta) is collecting ambient noise for his latest picture, Co-Ed Frenzy, when he witnesses and records the titular car accident. The driver, who drowns when the sedan careens off a bridge, is Pennsylvania's governor and a presidential candidate. In The Conversation, Harry Caul's biggest obstacles to thwarting the conspiracy he discovers were his own mistakes, but Jack runs up against an entire society's indifference when he tries to expose a political assassination and its coverup. "Nobody wants to know," a police detective tells him. "Nobody cares."

Twenty-five years later, the America of Blow Out, with its bleak atmosphere of futility and collective denial, has become distressingly familiar. At the multiplex, you can watch a well-crafted, high-profile conspiracy thriller (Syriana) that ends with an explosion wiping out nearly every character still in possession of a conscience, including the one guy who knows the truth and threatens to make it public. And in Washington, President Bush argues that his administration has the legal power to wiretap anyone without a warrant, taking his surveillance cues (as well as some of his Cabinet members) from Nixon's White House.

Anyone? He actually said something quite different:
After the enemy attacked us, and after I realized that we were not protected by oceans, I asked people that work for you -- work for me, how best can we use information to protect the American people? You might remember there was hijackers here that had made calls outside the country to somebody else, prior to the September the 11th attacks. And I said, is there anything more we can do within the law, within the Constitution, to protect the American people. And they came back with a program, designed a program that I want to describe to you. And I want people here to clearly understand why I made the decision I made.

First, I made the decision to do the following things because there's an enemy that still wants to harm the American people. What I'm talking about is the intercept of certain communications emanating between somebody inside the United States and outside the United States; and one of the numbers would be reasonably suspected to be an al Qaeda link or affiliate. In other words, we have ways to determine whether or not someone can be an al Qaeda affiliate or al Qaeda. And if they're making a phone call in the United States, it seems like to me we want to know why.

This is a -- I repeat to you, even though you hear words, "domestic spying," these are not phone calls within the United States. It's a phone call of an al Qaeda, known al Qaeda suspect, making a phone call into the United States. I'm mindful of your civil liberties, and so I had all kinds of lawyers review the process. We briefed members of the United States Congress, one of whom was Senator Pat Roberts, about this program. You know, it's amazing, when people say to me, well, he was just breaking the law -- if I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress? (Laughter and applause.)

Federal courts have consistently ruled that a President has authority under the Constitution to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance against our enemies. Predecessors of mine have used that same constitutional authority. Recently there was a Supreme Court case called the Hamdi case. It ruled the authorization for the use of military force passed by the Congress in 2001 -- in other words, Congress passed this piece of legislation. And the Court ruled, the Supreme Court ruled that it gave the President additional authority to use what it called "the fundamental incidents of waging war" against al Qaeda.

I'm not a lawyer, but I can tell you what it means. It means Congress gave me the authority to use necessary force to protect the American people, but it didn't prescribe the tactics. It's an -- you've got the power to protect us, but we're not going to tell you how. And one of the ways to protect the American people is to understand the intentions of the enemy. I told you it's a different kind of war with a different kind of enemy. If they're making phone calls into the United States, we need to know why -- to protect you.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2006 3:26 PM

"Parallax View"

Posted by: toe at March 9, 2006 4:47 PM

What I remember most about Blow Out is that the "Jack Terry" character is a sleazebag who dubs a surveillance recording of his own girlfriend's dying screams, from a sting operation gone horribly wrong, into a slasher movie.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2006 5:03 PM

And "Blow Out" a semi-remake of an earlier (1966) Antonioni film called "Blowup" about a photographer who notices something in the background of one of his pictures.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 9, 2006 7:53 PM