Enemy of the State (1998)

This remarkable film already told us in a fictional story of the NSA’s spying and capabilities, then and what was to be. I reviewed it in September 2012. That review, slightly edited, follows.

In this movie, Will Smith is harried, harassed and hunted by Jon Voight’s National Security Agency teams.

Surveillance as depicted in movies is an interesting topic. The movie “The Anderson Tapes” (1971) already depicted wall-to-wall surveillance by numerous government agencies as a robbery plot unfolded. In Enemy of the State, the National Security Agency (NSA) has hugely enhanced surveillance capabilities with satellites and on-ground teams, as in “The Conversation” (1974), another film about surveillance. Gene Hackman, wearing glasses, appears in both of the latter two movies.

Jon Voight is a rogue NSA bureaucrat who directs operations. He and some of his team kill a Congressman (Jason Robards) who is standing in the way of a bill in Congress that extends their surveillance powers. (By now, such powers are common, so that art has preceded reality or intuited its appearance as is often the case.) Ironically, the murder is filmed by a bird watcher. When Voight hears of this, he sets his teams to work recovering the film, murdering more people, and covering up. Will Smith comes into possession of a disk with the film, and he becomes the harried and threatened protagonist, later assisted by an irascible ex-NSA agent (Gene Hackman). The movie plays out as a fairly conventional decent thriller.

I found interesting the depiction of the hands who do Voight’s dirty work of the actual surveillance and murder. He has two teams with these separate functions. They are young, their clothing doesn’t identify them, and they are glued to their electronic devices just as if they were any youths you might see playing video games intensely, only their toys are far more sophisticated. The kill-team has more young men who do their searching, running, and gun-pointing work without hesitation. They do not kill indiscriminately at all, but they will if ordered to.

The State cannot operate without the loyalty and unswerving obedience of these young men. I have the feeling that they believe in what they do (believe that they are the good guys and that their superiors identify the bad guys for them), but also their superiors know how to exploit their psychology. These young men like the taste of the chase, the hunt, the power, the action, the voyeurism, and the winning, plus they are submissive to boot. It was annoying for me to see these young squirts operating like little Nazis. Is this real? I mean, does this portrayal capture some elements of reality among those who “serve”? I think it does. Liberty is in huge danger from a government that recruits and trains such people, and from the millions who know nothing of it or approve of it.

In the end, here’s another irony. These submissive men who always take orders have to make a decision on their own when Voight is in danger, and they make a hasty, emotional and wrong decision, which is their downfall and his too. Under pressure to think straight, they fail to do so. Their capacities are purely mechanical. They are linked as one to their computer screens and electronic signals. Their minds have atrophied in other ways. In fact, the movie never shows these young men as characters or persons. They are not developed as such in the screenplay. This is fitting.

Voight is given several speeches in which he justifies the NSA’s spying. The movie is not unbalanced. Nevertheless, since he commits a crime and since Will Smith is the hero, the movie comes down on the side of controlling the surveillance and spying capacities of government. Will Smith’s wife delivers opinions that take that point of view, so there is a kind of debate in the script. However, it’s a thriller. The movie does stop and focus on the human element a bit when Will Smith’s former girl friend (Lisa Bonet) is murdered, but it is not particularly strong in bringing out the negatives of surveillance. The bird watcher is killed, for example, and the movie quickly moves on. It has to, in some sense, because he is not a major character.

Voight is a rogue within the NSA. We are not given all that much direct intimation that the government is vastly overreaching, and that its power against individuals is crossing a line into police state. Yet the movie does leave that general impression. I am sure that other Hollywood thrillers have explored in more depth the excesses of the State itself. If not, they will. And they will be getting into scenarios in which the President becomes a dictator. I’ve seen a good many foreign movies that go back 20-30 years, like those by Costa-Gavras, that are simultaneously excellent thrillers while exploring government oppressions of various kinds and focusing more intensely on the effects this has on individual persons. These are not done in the more or less standardized Hollywood style that tends to veer off into superficial entertainment.

None of this stops or has stopped the State’s progression, but it doesn’t hurt to raise public awareness of the growing police state via popular entertainment like this.


6:58 am on February 21, 2014