Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Enemy of the State

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Enemy of the State

Enemy of the State, an entertaining 1998 thriller, retains interest today for two reasons: the way it points forward and the way it points back. Chronicling, with breakneck turn-of-the-millennium pacing, a burgeoning surveillance society, the film was connected to the Ken Star investigation by relevancy-seeking critics. Within a few years, the context would change completely and now Enemy of the State seems incredibly prophetic. Between its proto-Patriot Act legislation (for whose sake congressmen are murdered) and its talk of a database that flags any caller who uses the word "Allah", viewers tuning in on a 2008 TV would be forgiven for thinking the movie came out several years ago. Or at least for a moment, anyway; the movie does feature a very 90s cast, from a young Will Smith to a pre-fame Jack Black in a small role to a pre-prison Tom Sizemore (speaking of pre-prison, A Bronx Tale star Lillo Brancato gets practice for his own day in court as one of Smith's clients) to a post-"Cosby" Lisa Bonet and ubiquitous 90s brats like Seth Green thrown in for good measure (so ubiquitous he goes uncredited). While we're at it, the film's cast is almost absurdly populated by recognizable faces. Besides the aforementioned, Jason Robards and Philip Baker Hall make uncredited cameos, and supporting roles are snatched up by Jon Voight, Regina King, Barry Pepper, Jason Lee, Gabriel Byrne, Jamie Kennedy, an inquisitive Larry King, and even James Caan's and Gary Busey's kids (what, did they come in a package deal?). But besides Smith, the biggest star in the movie receives second billing and doesn't show up for the first hour and a half. He's the reason that the movie looks back as well as forward, and though his character's name is not Harry Caul, it's obvious that Gene Hackman (or else Tony Scott's casting director) is winking at those who remember The Conversation.


When I saw Enemy of the State ten years ago, I was especially taken with one scene, an unusually quiet one amidst all the MTV cuts, aural and visual hubbub and techno-babble. Will Smith, having come across some politically sensitive footage, is being followed and obstructed by rogue elements within the NSA. He's helpless against them, not even realizing his watch is bugged (let alone his pants) but an acquaintance directs him towards the mysterious Brill, a socially challenged loner who once worked in intelligence, and now battles government surveillance on his own terms. Brill is played by Hackman with a more acerbic edge than he gave Harry Caul 24 years prior, but there is a sense that as Caul (who was a freelancer rather than a government employee) became embittered with his work and his loneliness hardened into misanthropy, he could turn into someone like Brill. At any rate, Hackman brings a gravitas to the proceedings and even an odd sense of old-fashioned grittiness.

For example, he drives a ridiculously old car (which, not at all being a car person I could not identify for you), and one chase sequence finds Smith and Hackman hiding between passing boxcars, as if putting the grizzled old-timer in this flashy blockbuster suddenly pulled the timeline back into the Depression era. Which brings me to that scene I so enjoyed: a quiet moment where Smith and Hackman share a meal in a diner. They banter and I can't remember what they talk about, and truth be told on second viewing the scene didn't leave as strong an impression (its effect was mostly in my imagination, I think). But somehow the old-time surroundings and Hackman's presence - even though I had not seen The Conversation yet in '98 - seemed to suggest a kind of time warp, and I liked the thematic richness this suggested. The historical connotations of Hackman and the increasingly dingy, dated settings brings a rusty charm to what has been an extremely sleek, almost yuppieish affair.

Smith is introduced to us a mildly hip upwardly mobile family man (aside from a past affair which gets some play, but that comes with the package, no?). He's a slick labor lawyer with as posh house in the suburbs - he's professional, connected (went to Georgetown, along with his wife, and the much scruffier dude who passes him the sensitive material), with the right concerns (his wife's in the ACLU, he fights mobsters who shake down unions), and the right creature comforts (the loss of a prized blender makes him excessively morose). His character actually belongs even more to the 00s than the 90s - though maybe it just seems that way because I grew into adulthood and moved to New York in this decade, not the previous. At any rate, he's what David Brooks would probably call a BoBo, with heavy emphasis on the former (assuming the first "Bo" stands for bourgeois) and what I might call a yupster (yuppie/hipster, again heavy empahsis on the former, but with a touch of the latter too).

When Smith's comfortable amenities and security are stripped from him, and he goes on the run, he's at first as helpless as Neo unleashed from the Matrix. How does a man like this survive without his credit cards, flashy car, and big-screen TV? Meanwhile, the movie chugs along in its sleek technological flow. Though more intelligent than most Jerry Bruckheimer ventures, its aesthetics still firmly belong to that school, with the fetishistic devotion to technology that Tony Scott always lends to his work. It is when the character of Brill is first mentioned that the movie hangs a slight left turn. True, we don't ever switch over to long master shots or avant-garde sound design or ambiguous storytelling, but the settings get grimier and more textured, a sort of history emerges (so that the film no longer exists in a 1998 without any sign of a past).

First, Smith has a rendezvous with Gabriel Byrne on a ferry (Byrne will, in short order, shove Smith into a taxi, pull a gun on him, start screaming and cursing, and then promptly disappear from the story - perhaps the busy screenwriter forgot about his character). Then he meets up with Hackman in a hotel, sneaking up to the roof where Hackman berates him for his stupidity. Soon the two form an odd buddy-buddy act, and the film's references to The Conversation become increasingly self-conscious. First, the surveillance guys map out a plaza where Smith and Bonot will be having a walk-and-talk; the outlay of the aural surveillance matches that which is used in the first scene of The Conversation. Later, Hackman brings Smith to his own apartment which, with its high roof and cagelike entrapments, is obviously modeled after Harry Caul's working quarters in the earlier film. It takes Harry Caul the whole movie before he rips apart his own apartment in The Conversation; Enemy of the State has Caul's heir blow up his home base in just one scene.

Though the rest of the movie actually loses a little juice, becoming somewhat muddled as it winds its way to a conclusion, the infusion of Hackman inflates several of his early scenes with a kind of decaying grandeur. Subtextually, the movie seems to tell us that Smith, to survive, must discover something more deeply-rooted than the world of lingerie shops and video games he navigates in his daily life: though Hackman is ostensibly a techno-geek too, what he really seems to be offering Smith is the opportunity to reconnect with a seamy underground, a universe of old trainyards and desolate modernist hotels and dingy walk-ups fronted by chain-link fences. In the end, after foes have been bested, Hackman's character sends Smith a transmission: a video of him on a beach, writing "Wish You Were Here" in the sand. Smith chuckles, at home in the comfort of his cozy family life and professional career, but you sense that he does wish he was still by Hackman's side, taking pointers on how to survive in the street (dollars to donuts, Hackman won't stay in that tropical locale for long - he needs the gritty urban air and industrial wastelands to feed his soul).

When Hackman's transmission disappears, the TV returns to the news program Smith was watching, and a senator says that though the hoped-for surveillance bill is now doomed, the issue will not go away. Enemy of the State means this as a warning, and sure enough, three years later, in the wake of terrorist attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, making many of this movie's conspiracy theories a reality. I already mentioned a couple ways in which the movie is prescient, but there's one obviously unintentional way which literally gave me goosebumps as I watched the movie. Despite all the data that gets sorted throughout the movie, there were no dates mentioned which I can recall, with one notable exception. In a scene about midway through, Smith and Hackman are looking up the history of Voight's character, and as we catch a glimpse of his personal information on the computer screen, we're startled. Hackman's voice only compounds the irony, as he reads the pertinent information in numerical form. Next to Voight's name is his date of birth: 9/11/1940.

2 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

I watched this a few months back and, like you, I was surprised at how prophetic it is in many respects. That said, I was disappointed, too, because that made the stakes seem a little ho-hum and tame.

Will Smith sure is a watchable lead though. Films like this and "I Am Legend" could have bombed without him, me thinks.

Of course, this movie will always have a special place with me because I've never gotten over my childhood crush on Lisa Bonet. Always good to see her.

Lastly: Jason Lee's "fuck a duck" ... terrible! I cringe at that line every time. How does that not get cut?

MovieMan0283 said...

Ha..."fuck a duck"...I just got it. Though it's still pretty terrible.