Enemy of the State (1998)

Posted: July 2, 2013 in Joe Giambrone
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Enemy of the State 1

Is it a cliché to revisit this film now?  It needs to be done, so here we go.  I debated the film back in ’98, based purely on the extent of the revelations it contained.  I did not know at the time that it had US government cooperation for its production.

Wikipedia:

“In the mid-1990s, the CIA named Chase Brandonas liaison to Hollywood.[12] Brandon’s film credits include The Recruit, The Sum of All Fears, Enemy of the State, Bad Company and In the Company of Spies.”

Yes, the CIA liked the script.  For what reasons?  For starters, it’s not a federal agency that is the villain, but a small “rogue” clique of bad guys, a small bad apple gang.  They abuse the NSA’s capabilities, sure, but the problem — at the conclusion — is restricted to these individual actors.  Surveillance states don’t spy on people, people do is a theme threaded along the plot.

“’CIA renegade’ has become a dependable staple not just of big-budget movies like Enemy of the State, but also of a million straight-to-cable action-schlockfests starring Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal.”

Ah, this is a trope that the government can live with as long as it doesn’t reflect poorly on what the agencies themselves are doing.  One might argue that this was a risky call for Enemy of the State in particular.  The film presents a tyrannical Big Brother regime, the kind we’ve come to love lately, with total information awareness powers.  Perhaps the CIA’s idea was that this was exaggerated to such an extent that audiences wouldn’t believe it: because it’s just a movie.

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The story involves Fresh Prince Will Smith on the wrong end of the surveillance state.  In desperation he hooks up with conspiracy nut archetype Gene Hackman.  Together they try and evade capture and assassination, and turn the tables on the rogue little group inside NSA, which is giving them so many headaches.  With Hackman’s experience as an ex-NSA insider, they go to elaborate lengths to defeat the bad apples, who get more and more hapless after the initial all-knowing surveillance state setup.

I think like most films there are mixed messages here, and no one clear intent behind it.  Mr. Chase Brandon may have wanted it to go one way, but consultants don’t exercise editing power over the negative.  With a strategy toward minimizing the perception damage to NSA and CIA, he may have failed.  The specifics of the plot end up not as memorable at all compared to the truly frightening government spying capabilities portrayed throughout most of the film.

That all-powerful NSA surveillance state is the draw to attract audiences, and it is the central unique feature of the film.  The formulaic villain wrap-up is easily dismissed and forgotten, whereas the spooky digital dragnet tends to remain vibrant and potentially of much greater significance.

The person I debated this film with said something to the effect that the filmmakers, “love surveillance.”  I thought then that this was a strange idea, at odds with the film itself, wherein surveillance is the real enemy, the real threat to powerless civilians.  I still think that.  Was there a monolithic “they” involved with the production?  Or was the story hammered into fashion, eventually not in the shape that any one party – with an agenda – controlled fully?  That part is difficult to glean after the fact.  In the end it’s up to the viewer.  I think I can still give a reserved thumbs up to Enemy of the State.

 

Anyone disagree?

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