Will Smith plays Robert Clayton Dean who is a successful Washington, D.C. attorney who – without his knowledge – is given a video that ties a top official of the National Security Agency to a political murder! Instantly, every aspect of Dean’s once-normal life is targeted by a lethal team of skilled NSA surveillance operatives, who wage a relentless, ultra high-tech campaign to discredit him and retrieve the incriminating evidence!
‘Enemy of the State’ isn’t a sequel to ‘The Conversation’, but it is a modern day interpretation of the same themes as in the Coppola classic: surveillance, privacy and paranoia. It also includes politics, national security, surveillance states and technology to the mix to create a concoction that is as exciting as it is topical.
Whereas ‘The Conversation’ simmered and had its audience sit with their protagonist’s malaise purposefully, to tap into that character’s mind, ‘Enemy of the State’ does a total 360: it is constantly on the run, giving us glances at our lead without truly delving into his heart. We get a sense of what kind of man he is, but we never really get a proper look at his soul.
Of course, since it was helmed by Tony Scott, this is hardly surprising: he’s not exactly the most subtle or psychological filmmaker – this is the man behind ‘Beverley Hills II’, ‘Days of Thunder’, ‘Top Gun’ and ‘True Romance’, after all. He’s not a bad director at all – he just tends to lack subtlety and goes for broke all the time. He’s a great action director, but he’s not one for character portrayals.
‘Enemy of the State’ also features Gene Hackman, and in a role that could arguably be a re-imagining of Harry Caul, no less. I mean, not only do they use a photo of Harry Caul to show the younger Edward Lyle, but he also works in a secluded, secure warehouse and (apparently – I didn’t notice) wears the same translucent raincoat as Caul did in ‘The Conversation’.
He doesn’t truly play Caul from ‘The Conversation’, mind you, but it could be deemed as an alternate reality version of the character, or one that has many years of experience over his 1974 self. Hackman plays Hackman here. You know what I mean. He made Lyle into a gruff, strong-willed, confident loner who trusts no one. It’s a far cry from the nuanced characterization he gave us two decades prior, but it’s intense and solid.
Will Smith, our lead, plays Will Smith: good-looking, physically fit, a charmer. It’s not a bad performance, but it’s not great either. All things considered, it was a good choice for him at the time, as he was trying to break through in Hollywood and it did wonders to further his career. But it’s not a challenging role and anyone could have pulled it off (let’s just say that I was not surprised to read that Tom Cruise was originally set for the part ). He has since pushed his acting abilities more, thankfully.
The rest of the cast is nothing short of exceptional, with everyone under the sun being featured in the picture. No joke, all the main credits were familiar names to me, as it would be to anyone with a moderate knowledge of american cinema: Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Jake Busey, Gabriel Byrne, Scott Caan, Seth Green, Jamie Kennedy, Regina King, Jason Lee, James LeGros, Barry Pepper, Jason Robards and John Voight are all here. Although he is uncredited, even Tom Sizemore shows up in this.
Admittedly, most of them were small fry at the time (Robards and Voight were hardly superstars by this point in their respective careers either), but seeing it now, it’s quite unusual to see such names all together in the same film. It wouldn’t happen now because many of these people have become big names in their own right; it would cost way too much and egos would no doubt clash. So ‘Enemy of the State’ is quite a feast for film-goers – this kind of casting doesn’t happen often.
I love Regina King as Smith’s spouse, in that she had such balls; she wasn’t a self-effacing, prim and proper, lovely housewife – she had attitude and fight in her. She might seem pushy to some, but I’m impressed that she just jumps off the screen, given how small the part is. It was also cool to see African-americans portrayed with wealth and with the luxuries that usually are only associated with white people. Granted, Bill Cosby had done that already about a decade prior, but it was quite rare at the time.
I found the film too fast-paced. It’s riveting, and it makes for a terrific antithesis to the slow pace of ‘The Conversation’, but things took place at lightning speed all the time – and it’s neither realistic nor relaxing (which, I suppose, was probably the point). Because of this, it defied credulity quite frequently; there was no time to make sense of anything (ex: when Smith sets fire to a puny storage area to escape his tormentors, and the fire dept show up mere seconds later – obviously before he could be consumed by the fire. Urgh ).
Similarly a lot of the technology that is on display here feels so bull-$#!tty (ex: dissecting a 2D video recording in 360 degrees on a computer) that it waters down the arguments being made throughout about the danger of surveillance technology. Since one can’t believe what one sees, it’s hard to truly grasp the risks involved – one tends to write it all off as fiction. I wish that they hadn’t mixed science fiction with science fact so much. At least, with the low-tech gear in ‘The Conversation’ one bought into everything.
Actually, I would love to see ‘Enemy of the State’ debunked by experts, to know what was technically possible and what was fiction at the time. It would make for a fascinating audio commentary on a DVD or BD, in my estimation. Heck, I would even just be happy with small featurettes exploring the technology at the time – something that would give us a sense of reality and also give us perspective at once.
Technology was used in such a band-aid sort of way that everything was convenient for the villains: they always had a rapid-fire tool to keep up with their target. They also always had the right teams in place, the proper gear at hand (even for substituting Smith’s clothes!), never made logistical errors, …etc. It reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones’ team in ‘The Fugitive’, but amped up on steroids. It defied credibility.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
When I first saw ‘Enemy of the State’ I had not yet seen ‘The Conversation’. I enjoyed it for the action and suspense, even though it would only appear realistic to the most conspiracy-minded. That was then.
While the film’s original appeal was the thrill-ride, for me the focus is now the semi-continuation of what takes place in ‘The Conversation’; the characters of Harry Caul and Edward Lyle can be interchanged somewhat, giving each of them a more complete history. The themes are also similar, but are given a more modern context by which to explore them.
In an age when environmentalists are labelled as terrorists, when our right to know what our governments are doing with our money and in our name (even basic things like budgets and departmental spending, for goodness’ sake! ) is limited for the sake of “national security”, when we are slowly being immersed in a surveillance (if not police!) state for our “security”, a movie that discusses these issues in simple terms that most people can comprehend isn’t all bad.
Hopefully this kind of entertainment doesn’t normalize these issues by making them glitzy and exciting, so that people now consider them conventional and jadedly accept this state of affairs. If so, then I’d declare ‘Enemy of the State’ (and motion pictures of its ilk) an enemy of the people.