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Surveillance and Spying in Film: I–Deja Vu

Crime Films: A Monthly Column

“The more technology you use, the easier it for them to keep tabs on you.”
–Gene Hackman’s character in Enemy of the State

Deja Vu, the recent Denzel Washington film about an ATF agent, is not a particularly interesting film in its own right but gains significance when we locate it in the evolution of the surveillance film. This venerable tradition includes Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), and Scorsese’s latest offering, The Departed (2006).

The roots of the surveillance film stretch back to the noir detective mysteries of the 1940s, with their intense interest in the meanings of watching–an activity that linked the central character and the viewer. But noirs showed little interest in technologies of surveillance. Indeed, their key surveillance image is that of a guy in a fedora hat, standing in the shadows, smoking cigarettes while keeping an eye on a building across the street.

The Conversation, the quiet psychological study that Francis Ford Coppola sandwiched between his first two Godfather films, introduced the film of surveillance technology. Starring Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, the spy-for-hire who secretly records a meeting between a man and woman in a park, The Conversation revolves around the two large reels of Harry’s tape recorder as he tries to decipher what the two were talking about. After deciding that the woman is in danger, he plants another listening device in a hotel bathroom, only to find (maybe) that the woman and her lover are in the hotel to kill the woman’s husband. Eventually, his efforts to understand the nature of the plot that he is in drive Harry mad. The Conversation, which Coppola wrote at the height of the scandals over President Richard Nixon’s secret recordings and criminal cover-ups, issues an impassioned warning against surveillance technology.

Minority Report was another trailblazer in this field, thanks to the metaphorical brilliance of its images of surveillance and its clever merger of surveillance themes with the notion of a time warp. The central character, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), works in a police unit where three “precogs,” half-human creatures who can visualize the future, enable him to detect homicides before they occur. John does not realize that the precogs, the first of the film’s surveillance devices, can err, and that they are part of a fascistic plot for a government takeover, until he himself is identified as a killer-to-be. During his subsequent flight, he is tormented by another surveillance device: small spider-like creatures who periodically confirm citizens’ identities through eyeball scans, thus enabling the police to identify disguised criminals. By renouncing his own role as a watcher and stealing one of the precogs, John is able to change his own future. He can’t change his tragic past, in which his son died, but he can free his country from saturation surveillance.

Surveillance is central in The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s film with two parallel and intersecting stories, the first about a cop who infiltrates an organized crime gang, the second about a mobster who infiltrates a police department. What the two main characters discover, and how they pass their information to their contacts, is key to the plot. But like much else in their post-9/11, Iraq-crazed world, even surveillance fails. A planned raid depends on tracking the mobsters using cell phones, but they turn them off. The cops plant cameras in front of the building to be raided, but they forget to cover the back. The desk cops starring into their computers are baffled. In the dark, absurdist world of The Departed, where everyone is spying on everyone else,, where no one can be trusted, information and communication become every more garbled, and surveillance constantly breaks down.

In Deja Vu (2006), director Tony Scott again turns to the theme of surveillance, and this time, the technology of surveillance becomes a principal visual element. The story begins in the present, where someone blows up a ferry boat, killing all its passengers, and also murders the beautiful young woman whose truck was used in the bombing. Doug Carlin, the ATF agent played by Denzel Washington, uses a high-tech film device that enables him to peer into the past, before the crimes occurred. Thus with Doug, we look into a film-within-a-film. Gradually, the reality of the film we are watching dissolves into the surveillance images, which become the reality of the film on our screen. In this respect, Deja Vu resembles other classic surveillance movies–Rear Window, The Conversation, Minority Report–in which the film on the screen merges with the recordings made or used by the main characters, forcing us to participate in their efforts to collect the data that will enable them to figure out the plot.

But Deja Vu attempts no critique of high-tech police surveillance; nor (unlike Rear Window, The Conversation, Minority Report, or Caché) does it use surveillance to raise questions about the main character’s identity. Instead, Deja Vu deteriorates into a futuristic (make that past-uristic) fantasy, a love story in which Doug goes back in time (fortunately, the department for which he is working happens to have a time capsule at hand) to rescue the young woman and prevent the deadly explosion. As in Minority Report, the main character uses the film-with-the-film to change the present–and prevent crime. But Doug goes John Anderton one better by changing the past as well.

Deja Vu is a direct descendant of The Conversation in terms of its fascination with solving crime through high technology. But here, the technology is futuristic and incredible even on the metaphoric level, window dressing for an old-fashioned detective tale in which the cop solves the crime and gets the girl. While Tony Scott weaves ideas about surveillance into the story, he uses them to jazz up an otherwise dull cop film rather than to make a statement about the condition of contemporary society.

My next column will again deal with films about surveillance and spying, this time discussing the recent Matt Damon film, The Good Shepherd, about origins of the CIA. In it, I will try to draw distinctions between surveillance and spy films.


Nicole Rafter is the author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, a sociocultural study of the crime film genre. She is currently a professor at Northeastern University in the Law, Policy, and Society program. Check out past columns on The Departed, A History of Violence, Sex Crime Movies, Inside Man and Miami Vice and her intro.

Recent Comments

  1. Herbert Bauer

    There is a new one-hour documentary film about video surveillance in Britain coming out, and this time, the topic seems to be covered in a more critical way than usual. There’s a trailer online:


    Surely looks promising, I think.

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