Enemy of the State
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Will Smith (Robert Dean), Gene Hackman (Brill), Jon Voight (Reynolds), Regina King (Stacy), Loren Dean (Hicks), Jake Busey (Krug), Barry Pepper (Pratt)
"Enemy of the State," Tony Scott's new paranoid government conspiracy thriller, could have just as easily been titled "The Conversation II" if they'd simply purchased the rights from Francis Ford Coppola. This movie plays like a 90's updating of Coppola's 1974 classic that dealt with surveillance, the erosion of privacy, and the escalating paranoia that you can never completely be alone because someone could always be listening.
"Enemy of the State" takes "The Conversation's" constant fear of always being recorded and ups the ante with the inclusion of satellites, miniature cameras, tracking devices, and digital technology--now you can be both seen and heard almost anywhere. The film even casts Gene Hackman in a role that could easily be interpreted as his "Conversation" character, Harry Caul, 24 years later. In fact, at one point, "Enemy of the State" shows a picture of the Hackman character when he was younger, and the mustache and horn-rimmed glasses are the ultimate tip-off that we are intended to relate these two characters as being, more or less, one in the same; both are men who are paranoid because they know. They know what others are capable of.
"Enemy of the State" stars Will Smith as Robert Dean, a successful labor lawyer who gets caught up in a tangled web of government conspiracy and murder when he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. While shopping for lingerie for his wife, he bumps into an old acquaintance from his college days. This acquaintance, fearful and in a hurry, is being chased by government operatives because he is carrying a computer disk. The disk contains a video file of a Congressman being murdered by those very same government men, who are under the direction of Reynolds (John Voight), a high-ranking member of National Security.
Once Dean is targeted by these outlaw feds working beyond the normal chain of command, his entire life is thrown upside down. When Reynolds orders his men, "Let's get into his life," they don't waste any time. Dean's house is trashed, his bank accounts are ruined, his credit cards fail, false accusations spring up in the newspaper, he's fired from his job, his wife begins accusing him of reigniting an old affair, and he is bugged so that Reynolds' men can track him every second of the day, anyplace on Earth.
"Enemy of the State" is a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing action thriller, not necessarily because of its technical and aesthetic achievements (although they are dazzling), but because it is built on a solid idea that concerns all of us. Screenwriter David Marconi makes sure we realize that Dean, as the primary character, is an Everyman. He could easily be any one of us, and the film drives that home by showing him in normal, human situations--shopping at the mall, talking politics with his wife in the kitchen, and trying to get his young son to stop playing video games for two minutes.
Because Will Smith is such a charming, humorous, and familiar presence in the film, it's easy to accept him in this role (although it's a little difficult to get used to him in a three-piece suit acting as a labor lawyer, of all things). In many ways, Smith reflects the Cary Grant character in Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest"--an average man forced by dire circumstances to exceed what he thought he was capable of.
Hackman is equally well-suited to his role as Brill, a man who is compelled to become involved in Dean's plight for a number of reasons, some of which are personal, some of which are professional, and all of which are due to bad luck. Hackman is scruffy and angry in the role; he yells a great deal, so much that I thought he might go hoarse. Ultimately, though, he comes across as a man who knows just how strong the system is, and has spent the latter part of his life trying to stop what he has helped create. When Dean pulls a tracking device out of his shoe, Brill notes that he helped design the first model of that particular device back in the '60s. So, like his character in "The Conversation," the very devices that are Hackman's stock-in-trade are eventually turned against him.
This is another strong thematic element that manages to seep into the viewer's mind--the notion that technology itself is neutral. A camera by itself is not good or evil, but it can be put to good or evil purposes. In fact, the film is deeply ironic in this area. For instance, the camera that captures the murder and thus sets off the escalating chain of events that consumes Dean's life was set up to film the migratory patterns of geese. And, there is no better scene of fateful irony than the one where a politician, who is trying to push a bill through Congress that would allow the government almost unlimited ability to pry into civilian's private lives, finds his entire hotel room bugged.
Thus, technology can be made to serve whatever purpose the person in power wants it to serve. During the course of "Enemy of the State," Dean (with Brill's help) reuses the very technology--cameras, tracking devices, microphones--that are used to destroy his life to restore it. One of the most satisfying aspects of the film is watching Dean turn the tables on his pursuers by using their weapons to his advantage.
Of course, all of his would be moot if the movie weren't so entertaining. Director Tony Scott ("True Romance," "Crimson Tide") knows how to keep an action thriller pulsing, and once he gets the premise set up, he never looks back. The film is almost two-and-a-half hours in length, but it never feels long, thanks to Scott's frenetic but meaningful director, Chris Lebenzon's crisp editing, and the likable presence of Will Smith, who gives the audience the perfect character with which to identify. His paranoia is too plausible not to be affecting, and after seeing this film, you might think twice about making a phone call, watching television, or logging onto the Internet, because--who knows?--somebody might be watching.
©1998 James Kendrick