With the huge array of Hollywood films vilifying foreigners and foreign governments, it’s refreshing to see a thriller which looks closer to home for its antagonists.
Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State is about a lawyer called Robert (Will Smith) who comes by some evidence that a congressman was murdered by NSA officials. He is forced on the run as the full force of the intelligence agency is directed against him to prevent him releasing the evidence ahead of a bill passing through congress which will increase NSA powers. Along the way he teams up with surveillance expert Edward (Gene Hackman) who has his share of gripes with the intelligence organisation.
It’s a gripping thriller which is energetic and exciting, thanks to good direction by Scott. It also benefits from a typically plucky performance by Smith and Hackman at his grumpy old man best. The plot is not as straightforward as it might have been and it keeps you on the edge of your seat for the most part, even if the number of developments it undergoes leave it a little on the long side. Thematically, and Gene Hackmanally, it’s a spiritual successor to The Conversation.
The main NSA guy in charge of the pursuit (Jon Voight) rather weirdly has his birthday on September 11th (as does Neo in The Matrix). It’s easy to see where conspiracy theories come from when two characters in prominent dystopian/surveillance films at the turn of the century had the birthday 9/11. I’m not saying Hollywood directors knew and were trying to warn us, but it’s looking pretty clear from where I’m standing…
As a film, Enemy of the State is unashamedly political, set against the backdrop of a surveillance bill going through congress. Made in 1998, it was well ahead of its time, with the most controversial of the US’s anti-terror surveillance laws being introduced in the post 9/11 era. All the major arguments in the surveillance versus security debate are vocalised and then played out, with the film clearly coming down on the anti surveillance side.
One of the arguments popularly used against spying on a population is “what if the Nazis came to power?” which highlights the potential of these measures to be abused, but holds little sway with most, who think we’re set to enjoy a nice, liberal government that wouldn’t do anything to harm us for ever and ever. What Enemy of the State does so well is show how power can be abused without a tyrannical government, with self-interest, money and corruption taking the place of totalitarian ideology.
At the beginning of the film Robert is very much of the “if you’re not a terrorist you have nothing to worry about” viewpoint. That is until he faces the NSA’s smear campaign against him where they dig up his past, ruin his marriage, get him fired from his job and force him on the run. Robert isn’t even an enemy of the NSA, as the evidence falls into his hands by accident and he’s initially sympathetic to their aims, so the film is effective at showing how anyone can become a victim if power like this is abused.
The film takes care to demonstrate the full range of tricks that may or may not be at the NSA’s disposal as they immediately pull up people’s bank details and phone records, home in on their prey with satellites, bug people and utilise face recognition technology. Much of the film is the NSA pursuing Will Smith’s character and the extreme lengths he has to go to to throw them off the scent. The odds are stacked so highly against Robert that outside a Hollywood film he would have been caught in a matter of hours, demonstrating the impossibility of taking on an organisation of the NSA’s power, reach and secrecy. It’s particularly relevant in light of the way the British government has been complicit in attempts to stop the Guardian from publishing the leaks, showing the lengths security services will go to to protect their own.
It creates new admiration for the Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens of the world who dare to stand up against such a vast, relentless power, but also creates a sense of hopelessness as it shows just how powerful the NSA is. First and foremost it shows the danger of an organisation being secretive and unaccountable. To take on the US government and expose its dark secrets is to have your life ruined, which is now reflected in the fate of Manning, sentenced to 35 years in prison (possibly in solitary confinement) and Snowden, forced on the run to Russia, as well as the harassment of journalists and their partners involved in leaks.
Of course this is a Hollywood film and it’s not completely accurate, but at the same time we don’t know the full range of the NSA’s powers, as was shown by the Snowden leak. Since this film came out 15 years ago their powers have without a doubt increased with post 9/11 legislation and the improvement of surveillance technology. What it does so effectively is set out the anti surveillance argument in clear terms for a mainstream audience who are generally indifferent or supportive to measures which are taken in the name of national security.