On Enemy of the State

Certainly, I saw Enemy of the State quite frequently when it came to television, but it none the less fictitious, albeit over-exaggerated on the capabilities of the NSA. According to the SFGate review:

ABOUT 15 minutes into a screening of “Enemy of the State” – at the end of a brilliantly edited rooftop-street-storefront chase that leaves the audience exhausted – someone in the stop-dead silence of the theater whistled low and said, “Jeez.”

For the next two hours, that word could’ve been repeated every few minutes, as “Enemy of the State” flew from onecrazed scene to another, throwing faces and crashes and spinning choppers at the screen. The movie, with Will Smith and Gene Hackman pitting themselves against the electronic gestapo of the National Security Agency, is everything you would want from a Big Brother film: Good-looking, preachy in an Old West kind of way, wobbling between humor and murder, hellbent and periodically brilliant.

Director Tony Scott ( “Top Gun,” “Beverly Hills Cop II” ) hits the ground running. “Enemy of the State” argues that nothing is left of our private lives in the U.S. of A., that electronic spies are everywhere, and Scott jumps right into the argument by flashing a cavalcade of helicopter newsreels – people running from police, naked in the public frame, blurred from above and below, grist for the criminal mill.

Scott doesn’t make a big thing about the bathroom-window ethics of contemporary TV, the mud-lust of watching people brought to their knees on prime time. No mention is made of Kenneth Starr’s demand for the reading lists and casual phone calls of the people caught up in his investigation, or of Linda Tripp’s ease in taping private conversations. “Enemy of the State” doesn’t need to underline any of that – it only needs to point to the 1,000 wiretaps approved by government agencies in 1996, or the constantly expanding electronic-spy industry, to make its argument.

All Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer had to do was put together a decent cast and production crew to get their idea across, and they’ve done that. Writer David Marconicomes up with a riveting script, in spite of the usual logical detours, and Dan Mindel’s photography and Chris Lebenzon’s editing are top-notch.

The pairing of Smith and Hackman is inspired. Smith is a young, nerdy-cool labor lawyer teamed with a grizzled, screw-you government op in their battle against a rogue security chief and his minions – a gaggle of Gen X dweebs and killers who don’t have the conscience God gave a cow. Some of the arguments between Smith and Hackman seemed forced, but that’s because the movie is usually moving too fast for character development.

Jon Voight, as the security chief, is the epitome of distanced sleaze – Christopher Walkenshould take lessons from Voight on how to do evil. The Gen X’ers are all good, from Jack Black to Jason Lee to Barry Pepper, the Bible-quoting sniper in “Saving Private Ryan.”Regina King and Lisa Bonet (Denise Huxtable of “The Cosby Show,” naked to the world in “Angel Heart” ) do well as Smith’s love interests, although the movie slows down too much when they’re on the screen.

The key to “Enemy of the State” is the pacing. You have to have a pretty warped view of America to think a high official would have a congressman killed just so the National Security Agency can expand its rights to spy and wiretap. But once you buy into that concept, the movie won’t let you go – from the chance meeting between Smith and an old schoolmate who winds up with a videotape of the murder, to the NSA’s relentless attack on Smith, to Smith’s call on Hackman for help, to the furious, explosive send-up at the end.

There are the usual Big Brother cliches. Smith, an Ordinary Joe, outwits professional hit men as if he’d finished first in his class at Quantico. Hackman and Smith turn the tables on the NSA in a bunch of happy-face scenarios that leave the bad guys looking like fools. And there’s a trail of bodies and break-ins and broken cars that nobody ever seems to follow up, a hallmark of American action films.

There are also some serious questions about the speed of spying in the movie. Within the space of a few days, NSA is able to discredit Smith with bogus stories in the newspapers, cut off his credit, plant evidence of extramarital affairs and get him fired, all while following him 24 hours a day from outer-space satellites and listening-post hookups. In fact, government surveillance seems to be a decidedly slower affair, a molasses-like pileup of taped conversations and drawn-out videos that can bore you to tears.

But that’s not the way it is in “Enemy of the State,” a movie in the best David-and-Goliath tradition. Its go-to-hell approach to invasions of privacy leaves people wheezing at the breakneck speed of things, smiling at the triumph of the little man over the system. If you’re getting sick of listening to peek-a-boo testimony and hearing government snoops justify themselves, “Enemy of the State” is good for what ails you.

 

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8 thoughts on “On Enemy of the State

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