Enemy of the State (1998)

Enemy of the State (1998) – The tagline of this movie is “it’s not paranoia if they’re really after you” or something to that effect. Some might look at this movie and see it as eerily prophetic of the USA PATRIOT Act era that came after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Surely what with all the controversy about unmanned surveillance drones flying over the citizenry of the United States, the themes of privacy invasion in the name of national security is more relevant now than ever. Further adding to the paranoia, ALMOST ALL OF THE TECHNOLOGY IN THIS MOVIE IS REAL and a bunch of it wasn’t even especially new in 1998, when the film was released. Of course things have gotten even more ridiculously advanced in the fourteen years since. I’m not saying there are government people spying on us, but you better believe they are capable of it. Monitoring phone chatter and even movie blogs… oh shit… Um… so onto the movie… and my completely non-subversive opinions…

Phil Hammersly (Jason Robards) is a congressman who is voting against the so-called Privacy Bill that would allow the government to spy on anyone it suspected of being a threat to national security. An NSA official named Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight) tries to talk Hammersly out of this position and when that fails, kills him. Nature documentarian Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee) had a camera set up to observe ducks that accidently caught the congressman’s untimely demise. The NSA chases Zavitz around the city until he is hit by a truck. Before Mr. Zavitz’s shuffling off of his mortal coil he was able to pass the video off to an old college friend of his named Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), a labor lawyer completely unaware that Zavitz passed him anything. The many NSA techies (Jack Black, Jamie Kennedy, Seth Green, Bodhi Elfman) who are going over every minute of the video of Zavitz’s sprint through town figure out that Dean must have the tape. Dean goes about his business oblivious, trying to intimidate a mobster (Tom Sizemore) and keep his wife (Regina King). Then the NSA start fucking with him. They ruin his credit history and bug his house and his clothes. They even steal his blender. Soon, Dean is asking his ex-girlfriend (Lisa Bonet) about the shadowy investigator (Gene Hackman) she works for and if he can help at all. Almost immediately, Dean finds himself on the run from NSA goons (Jake Busey, Scott Caan, Ian Hart).

Now Gene Hackman’s character is named Edward Lyle, but in many ways he is just an older version of Harry Caul from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. In that film, Hackman was a surveillance expert and after the troubles he goes through it is easy to imagine him grown into the recluse he is in this film. Some details of the backstory don’t gel, but in many ways in terms of Hackman’s character this film is the spiritual sequel to The Conversation. As for Will Smith this was one of his first major roles that wasn’t overtly comedic. Sure he’d done action movies before but this was the movie that first sold him as an everyman in big trouble. The direction of the recently departed Tony Scott really helps amp up the atmosphere of paranoia. Also, much like Scott helped define the look of the modern action movie, he helps define the look of most spy thrillers that have come since then with constant cutaways to surveillance camera footage and satellite imagery. In this movie, someone is always watching. It’s a style that has been aped many times since. The script is clever. It’s credited solely to David Marconi, but I’ve read that Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin did some rewrite work as did The Bourne Identity scribe Tony Gilroy. The dialogue seems to have some of that Sorkin pop to it and much of the action is prescient of Gilroy’s later films, so I find it very easy to believe. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer often makes brainless action flicks (some damn good ones sometimes, but often brainless nonetheless). With this film he seems to have assembled top-notch talent to make a very clever thriller. It’s well worth checking out.

R.I.P. Tony Scott, 1944-2012

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