“Are you sure they will print it? How do you know?”
The power of print has risen and fallen with the times. From the bitter sarcasm of the 1700s to the yellow journalism of the 1800s to the profound belief in the leverage of text in the 1900s—does it matter that something is put down in writing?
Three Days of the Condor asks this question as it covers three days in the life of a CIA bookworm played by Robert Redford. His entire section—which reads every book published in the known world, backwards and forwards to find code—is murdered. Inexplicably. The film doesn’t bother with the details until a shabby hand-off at the end. The film isn’t about Redford being an action star or single-handedly cleaning house for the First World. The film is preoccupied with people and how the games of information are really tied to what they want. (THEY personifies every person with a stomach, a mouth, and a trigger finger.)
Higgins, the CIA director that Redford muscles onto his side in his quest for the answers, says it doesn’t really matter, wars and politics and all that. Whether it’s oil or food or healthcare, people won’t care how its gotten to as long as its gotten for them. Redford tries to corner the CIA through the press, but Higgins argues that the press is powerless because it is predicated on a luxury: ideals.
Ideals not in the sense that “Mr. Right is six foot tall, dark, and handsome; must love dogs.” Ideals in the sense that Plato talked about them, Truth and Beauty and everything. Abstract concepts about how the world should be and how the world really is apart from everything else. Redford is like a condor, an endangered bird, because he is of a dwindling portion of the population that believes in the power of stories. He believes in the power of stories to express reality; Higgins thinks stories mask the real thing. When people who have never been hungry suddenly can’t find their next meal, will the free exchange of ideas and equality among nations and multi-lateral cooperation have any weight at all?
This 1975 thriller does belong in its era—full of unrest and promise, wishful thinking and bitter encounters. But it speaks for my generation, too. It speaks for my generation because it is about the fear that things won’t really turn out alright in the end like they always have. The fear is that despite the power of words, despite the “power” of education, we’ve come to despise our language. It marks us as greedy and its only use is feeding ourselves.
Faye Dunaway is not the distracting love interest because she dares to question the story. “Why did you tie me up? You’ve got fine qualities but he’ll understand. He’s tough. I’ll do my best.” Our stories aren’t working anymore because they’ve separated themselves from the real thing: a home, clothes, food, transportation, communication. Where does all that comes into the play? Faye’s best means going back to the man that can put those on the table, whose ignorance provides for her bliss. Is there room in the playbook for stories and stomachs or must they always part ways at a misty railway station in the end?
ps. I find it especially provocative that the CIA operations in NY are depicted as being located in the Twin Towers. It is surreal to see them on film, so familiarly used.