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Enemy of the State (1998)
Added 2001-12-07
by Ronald Bruce Meyer



Enemy of the State

Robert Dean
What the hell is happening?

I blew up the building.

Robert Dean

Because you made a phone call!

Enemy of the State
Jason Robards just before being
"persuaded" by Jon Voight

Enemy of the State
Gene Hackman confronts
Will Smith, who doesn't know
he's been "bugged" by the NSA

Enemy of the State
Will Smith on the run
from NSA goons

You lead a normal, successful life. You have a loving wife, a young son, a good job, and you're enjoying some measure of success. Then one day a college chum, sounding desperate, asks you for help, slips something into your shopping bag, races off -- and the next time you see him he's dead. Bad as that is, soon afterward strange things start happening to your life: your business association with an ex-lover gets scandalized coverage in the newspaper; your house is ransacked; photos of a meeting with that ex-lover are sent to your wife; your wife kicks you out; you lose your job; your credit cards are blocked; your ex-lover is murdered and it's made to look like you did it. Your phones are tapped, your house is under video surveillance. Strangers start following you.

And they even steal your favorite blender!

Its sounds pretty grim, right? In fact, it sounds like the USA Patriot Act taken to extremes. But not quite: it's the beginning of a thrilling exercise in paranoia triggered when a government bureaucrat tries to make a career move with a murder and a cover-up. Enemy of the State is Tony Scott's directorial take on a screenplay written by David Marconi, with the thesis that "It's Not Paranoia If They're Really After You." And so they are: Washington, DC, lawyer Robert Dean (an often nonplused Will Smith) has the goods on CIA bureaucrat Thomas Reynolds (a slimy Jon Voight). But he doesn't even know it until his business contact and ex-lover Rachel Banks (sexy Lisa Bonet) puts him in touch with an ex-NSA technician know as "Brill" (Gene Hackman, somewhat reprising his 1974 role in The Conversation).

Once Dean realizes it isn't mob boss Pintero (an uncredited Tom Sizemore) out to ruin his life, and his wife Carla (Regina King) allows him back into their home, it's up to the lawyer and the techie to turn the tables on the super-spooks and their goons. In the course of this tense, exciting, paranoiafest, Enemy of the State manages to make a few good points about the dangers of the Surveillance State and to ask, who watches the watchers?

It has always been troubling to me that government agencies have the power and the technology to watch and record everything we citizens say and do, with little oversight and less cause. And it is ironic that we might, as Benjamin Franklin quipped, can so willingly give up liberty for a little security -- even when the security end of the bargain is a promise full of authoritarian air. In 1998, when this film was released, there had been no great terror attack on US soil. True, the World Trade Center had been bombed five years earlier (1993). But the loss of life and property damage were insufficient to justify the draconian measures of military tribunals and the virtually unchecked surveillance of unsuspecting residents now being formulated.

Times and situations change, of course, right? Our leaders are acting in our interests because they love this country, not because they are corrupt and venal, right? So, of course, we can be sure our leaders have only the highest motives behind making themselves and their agencies more powerful, right? But Enemy of the State is a part of My Movie Collection precisely because it asked the question at least three years ago that we should be asking ourselves today: what if some of our leaders really are corrupt and venal?

OK, so all of the technology wonderfully exposed in this film isn't quite possible -- yet. And relying on elint rather than humint -- that's electronic vs. human intelligence -- has been one of our biggest intelligence failings to date. And the film takes pains to show that it's not the whole government, or even one agency, that victimizes an innocent man. But you have to admit that that kind of power in corruptible hands could conceivably lead to corruption. In fact, in the hands of anyone with a passionate (rather than a compassionate) sense of moral righteousness, I'd say it's a safe bet that that kind of power will lead to corruption.

Enemy of the State features fine performances all around and one questionable choice: what is the point of the Gabriel Byrne character? He seems to pop up out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, as if he was written in as some kind of favor. Nevertheless, I loved watching the thoroughly comfortable Gene Hackman; and Will Smith is fast becoming one of my favorite actors; Lisa Bonet deserved more screen time; Angelina's Jolie's dad, er, Jon Voight, makes a believable bureaucrat -- I look forward to seeing him work with Smith again (as Howard Cosell!) in Ali -- and a cunningly corrupt villain.

"We are at war 24 hours a day," says NSA bureaucrat Reynolds (Voight), in justification for the surveillance state he's trying to get a congressman (Jason Robards) to support -- before killing him when he refuses. This sounds like the justification used by another fictional spy agency chief, Higgins of the CIA in Three Days of the Condor. Higgins says, "We play games... that's what we're paid to do... and the other side does, too."

Perhaps the only answer to that uninhibited use of technology to keep people under surveillance, and hence under control, is what Dr. Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park (1993): "Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Or maybe a line spoken by the Tom Sizemore character in Strange Days (1995) would be even more appropriate: " The issue is not whether you're paranoid -- look around you Lenny -- the issue is whether you're paranoid enough." Enemy of the State is paranoid enough.

Enemy of the State (1998) 131 mins. Directed by Tony Scott. Written by David Marconi. Cast: Will Smith as Robert Clayton Dean, Gene Hackman as Edward "Brill" Lyle, Jon Voight as Thomas Brian Reynolds, Lisa Bonet as Rachel F. Banks, Regina King as Carla Dean, Stuart Wilson as Congressman Sam Albert, Laura Cayouette as Christa Hawkins, Loren Dean as Hicks, Barry Pepper as Detective David Pratt, Ian Hart as Bingham, Jake Busey as Krug, Scott Caan as Jones, Jason Lee as Daniel Leon Zavitz, Gabriel Byrne as Fake Brill, James LeGros as Jerry Miller, Jack Black as Fiedler, Larry King as Himself, Jason Robards as Congressman Phillip Hammersley (uncredited), Tom Sizemore as Boss Paulie Pintero (uncredited), Brenna McDonough as Field Reporter #3 (local actress who taught me TV acting technique).

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.

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