Enemy of the State movie review: someone to watch over me

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Enemy of the State pushes lots of hot buttons: loss of personal privacy in a surveillance-happy society, our paradoxical fear of technology and utter reliance on it, and the sure and certain knowledge many people hold that Something Is Going On.

Lawyer Robert Dean (Will Smith) has a chance encounter with an old college pal, Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee, from Chasing Amy), that will ruin his whole day. Unbeknownst to Dean, Zavitz dropped a digital video of the murder of a Congressman into Dean’s Christmas shopping — evidence that the NSA is hot to get back from him lest he expose the very highly placed murderer. The surveillance the NSA puts Dean and his family under is Rush Limbaugh’s worst government-run-amuck nightmare: tracking devices in his clothes, watch, pen, cell phone, car. Satellites with one-meter-resolution cameras following his every move. Taps on every possible phone number Dean might call. And lots and lots of scary guys with buzzcuts and high-powered pistols chasing him.

Ah, the National Security Agency, villains du jour (as they were also Mercury Rising, from earlier this year). Hollywood used to be able to count on the CIA to supply homegrown bad guys — the Cold War was great for producing double agents, moles, and other spies gone bad. Now, we no longer need to stalk enemy territory to gather information — we just need to tap their phones and hack their computers. Enter the NSA, bad guys for the Information Age — unscrupulous electronic spies are ready to serve Hollywood’s nefarious purposes. And as the NSA has been dubbed by some No Such Agency, it hardly can be expected to stand up for itself and start picketing movie premieres. Hence, perfect villains.

Jon Voight plays the suit in charge of containing the Dean problem, with Gattaca‘s Loren Dean as his righthand man. The two of them are frightening, to be sure, with their coldblooded, offhand casualness to murder and mayhem. But they would be completely ineffectual without their essential backup and the subset villains of our information society: computer geeks. Give these guys — and they are invariably guys — some cool, supersophisticated hardware and they will do your bidding. The geeks throughout Enemy — even the good guys like Zavitz, to whom it obviously didn’t occur to go to the police with his video — are techheads first and foremost, and seem not to give a thought to the morality of the purposes their toys are put to. An unfair characterization of the masses of computer geeks? Perhaps, but I suspect there’s probably more than a grain of truth to it — and they’re as unlikely as the NSA to start picketing, as they’re all too busy playing with their toys.

Director Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Top Gun) has crafted such a thrilling, edge-of-the-seat roller-coaster ride that you won’t realize till after the end credits roll how ridiculous it is, how much it relies on outrageous coincidence (Dean hasn’t seen Zavitz in years, and now he’s in the right place to accept the hot potato?), and how it cops out in the end with a clever but cheap finale. Enemy is jam-packed with brilliantly staged set pieces — car chases, foot chases, explosions, gun fights — all of which will make you feel as if you’ve never seen an action movie before. And its great performances distract you from the ultimate silliness of it all: Will Smith’s undeniable charisma carries you along, and Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert (in a role that’s almost a continuation of the one he played in 1974’s The Conversation, a much smarter film about the same themes) is fantastic. And nice in small roles are Gabriel Byrne as a mysterious agent and an almost unrecognizable Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan) as an Italian mob boss.

All of which will make you forget that although Enemy of the State raises important and interesting questions — like, Where do we draw the line between privacy and security? — not only does it not bother trying to answer them, it ultimately ends up drawing your attention away from them.

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