Abstract – Directed by Brian De Palma; John Travolta stars as a movie audio technician who records the audio of the assassination of a presidential candidate.
Background – As I explained in my post about Blow-Up, this was one of the last minute additions to this list. However I have had a long experience with this story through its related filmography. I was fairly young when I first saw Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State and still to this day love that film. Then in school I first saw The Conversation, a far superior film which then led me to Antonioni’s Blow-Up and then finally De Palma’s Blow Out.
Comments – 1: Red, white and blue, a huge portion of the frames of this film are an American flag distorted. As I watched this wholly engrossing story happen I became more amazed at how in each scene there would be something red and something blue on a white background. It was stunning and it bashes you over the head with the message that the foundations of America are crumbling and distorted. It is beautiful; totally and completely beautiful; and sad as I’ll soon describe.
2: Travolta gives the best performance of his career here. Better than Grease, better than Saturday Night Fever, better than Pulp Fiction. Travolta plays a fully developped character with a history, with morals, with dreams, even if those dreams are eventually dashed. He is able to create great chemistry with all of his co-stars and his performance shows all the paranoia and distrust that he can muster.
3: The direction and the homage; as I described in my write up for Blow-Up the best scenes of that film are as the main character is taking his photographs and blowing up the image to find evidence of the murder. This film has a similar sequence when Travolta is going through his tape and finding the sound of the gun shot and matching it up to a film he has of the events. Its tensely edited and as with the best of thrillers, it is impossible to look away.
Deep Cuts – Blow-Up is about a civilian who witnesses a civilian murder. The Conversation is about a recording surveillance expert with past government contracts who records what could be a murder about to happen. Blow Out is about a civilian who had worked for the police in the past and records a political assassination. Enemy of the State is about an innocent man who comes into possession of a recording of a political assassination and is then himself surveyed. Each film becomes more political than the last and each film moves further away from civilian involvement than the last. The first film is demonstrably anti-counter culture while all of the other films become more definitively anti-government.
Going in reverse though, the films show another trend. Each film becomes more ambiguous in its style and message. Enemy of the State shows the specific recording of a political assassination and the guilty assassins using more surveillance to track down the recording. It’s a purely anti-government control theme with no room for ambiguity. Skipping this film for a second, The Conversation is less about politics and more about the ubiquity of surveillance. Blow-Up is the equivalent of get-off-my-lawn in its politics. But Blow Out is the most interesting of them all. Blow Out is about Watergate, there is no doubt about that, however the film takes a stance against power that has nothing to do with surveillance. The surveillance is not coming from those who possess power and can be removed from the political equation. Travolta’s politics in this film are about the ubiquity of politics. The police, the media, and of course elections are about power. Nothing else matters and anyone willing to get in the way with a concern for morals are eliminated. And the saddest part is that in this film, they get away with it. Travolta’s love interest and the only other person who witnessed the crime is killed and the evidence is destroyed. Travolta goes back to his job, distraught, and becomes jaded, eliminated in the eyes of the powerful.
Watch with Blow-Up, The Conversation, and Enemy of the State if you want a comprehensive film experience about surveillance.
Watch with Insomnia if you want a night of tension and colour and concern about the state of police.