Enemy of the State

"State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: ``I, the state, am the people.'' That is a lie! It was creators who created peoples and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life." --Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathushtra

Enemy of the State follows a formulaic story line that generally has worked well for Hollywood: the protagonist is framed for crimes they did not not commit and has to overcome overwhelming odds to prove their innocence (North by Northwest, The Fugitive, The Negotiator, The Net, U.S. Marshals). In this particular Orwellian scenario, the protagonist is pitted against a corrupt government organisation which has an even greater appeal to me.

In the spirit of The X Files, the operative watchword here is "trust no one", because the government is listening to and watching everything you say and do. And in the same spirit, the plot is fairly convoluted: Robert Dean, a Washington, DC lawyer, is involved in a case against Pintero (Tom Sizemore) a mobster who is extorting his clients. Dean obtains a videotape of Pintero violating his parole (which could result in a long jail sentence) from "Brill", a person of many means. Dean wants to cut a deal with the mobster: leave his clients alone and the videotape disappears.

Cut to another seemingly unrelated sub-plot: Dean encounters Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee) a classmate of his from Georgetown University on the run from National Security Agency (NSA) goons. The reason Zavitz is being pursued is because he possess a disk depicting the murder of a U.S. Senator by NSA Deputy Director Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight) set up to look like a suicide. The reason? The Senator was opposing a bill that would give greater surveillance powers (within the U.S.) to the NSA. Zavitz slips the evidence of the murder into Dean's shopping bags and manages to promptly kill himself (cycling on Georgetown streets is murder). Dean, blissfully unaware of the highly incriminating piece of information he's carrying, goes home to his wife and son.

Soon after, Dean's life is turned upside town: his every moment is tracked, every word is tapped, and his credit cards are made inoperative, by the NSA so they can acquire the disk. After stumbling around for a bit trying to figure out what's happening to him, Dean turns to Brill for help, who turns out be an ex-NSA agent named Edward Lyle who was responsible for inventing some of the surveillance devices used against Dean by the NSA. Together, they fight the NSA using the same techniques used against them, culminating in an action sequence where the two sub-plots are brought together in highly improbable circumstances.

Enemy of the State has a lot of good things going for it: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, and Jon Voight dole out excellent performances. The supporting cast isn't too bad either. The direction (Tony Scott) and pacing of the action sequences are fast and tight. The cinematography is brilliant and the use of the satellite perspective to film scenes makes the surveillance aspect of the film extremely realistic. The ending, which features a Reservoir Dogs face-off, could've been done better (by making it conform more to a Quentin Tarantino style).

Movies like Enemy of the State stop and make you think. I'd wager most people brush off comments in the movie about the abilities of the government to monitor every aspect of your life saying "it can't be possible" or "they wouldn't do that." But I think the technology to do all the things depicted in the film isn't too far from being deployed for routine use (after all, I can, on the world wide web, see a satellite image of the building I research in). Big Brother is indeed watching. Fortunately, like in the film, technology that enables surveillance to have an extraordinary reach also enables the average person to avoid surveillance to unsurpassed levels (especially considering the incompetency of government in general). It makes it all the more imperative that people do not let their freedoms to use anonymity and strong encryption and protect their privacy be abridged: that is what will provide a defense in an Orwellian future.

Movie ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org