Review: Enemy of the State (1998)

Tony Scott’s 1998 thriller, Enemy of the State, is as entertaining as it ever was, but seen today, after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the current U.S. surveillance state, the film holds new significance.

The film has elements of both the “wrong man” thriller and the spy thriller. Lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) unknowingly gains possession of a video showing Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight), an official in the National Security Agency, involved in the murder of a congressman who was attempting to block a bill granting greater powers to the NSA. Reynolds and his team use the vast resources of the agency to hunt down Dean, who is forced to go on the run. Through various twists and turns, Dean eventually joins up with a hardened loner and former NSA agent (Gene Hackman), and together they determine to fight back.

The DVD cover of Enemy of the State, which you might remember seeing in a Blockbuster in the early 2000s, boasts the tagline: “It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.” This story may have seemed to border on the realm of conspiracy theory in 1998, but now it seems like a matter of fact. What’s more, the spying arsenal of the NSA on display in the film—satellite surveillance, wiretapping, electronic bugs, and security cameras—seems almost quaint in comparison to today’s mass surveillance of emails and instant messaging, the tracking of cellphones, and the omnipresence of personal cameras.

The film’s anticipation of the current surveillance state isn’t the only aspect of interest though. The cast is an impressive slice of late-90s actors: it’s got Will Smith amid his ascent, Jack Black before High Fidelity, thriller veterans (Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Gabriel Byrne, Tom Sizemore), Hollywood sons (Jake Busey, Scott Caan), and 90s up-and-comers that never really became stars (Lisa Bonet, Barry Pepper, Jamie Kennedy, Jason Lee, Seth Green).

In spite of the film’s accrued cultural significance and interest, though, it’s also a Jerry Bruckheimer production, and so contains some gratuitous titillation and worked-over jokes. For instance, a fleeing man slips the videotape into Dean’s bag when he just happens to be shopping for lingerie for his wife in a store where the saleswomen model the merchandise. Similarly, Dean’s love for his blender is thrown in solely to become a continual butt for jokes.

Enemy of the State is also very much one of Tony Scott’s trademark “slam-bang” action thrillers, which tend to involve non-stop plot turns, revelations, chases, crashes, chiefly told with close-ups and extreme close-ups and fast cuts.

(Spoiler Warning! Alright, if you haven’t seen the movie before and intend to seek it out at this point, read no further. The final three paragraphs touch on some plot details you’d probably rather not know.) 

Often derided for his over-the-top direction, Tony Scott is actually a master of maintaining momentum. The guy’s style alone generates thrills! His films also move so fast it’s difficult to notice what doesn’t quite work.

While Gene Hackman is a nice intertextual touch, nodding to his alienated surveillance expert in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 paranoid thriller The Conversation, this time around I noticed how underdeveloped Hackman is as a character in Enemy of the State. Thematically, he functions as a kind of emblem of 1970s paranoia and suspicion about the government, decrying the comparative political optimism of the 1990s. Narratively, he’s a way to endow Dean with the abilities and means to fight back against the rogues in the NSA.

Which brings me to my last point. In the end, Enemy of the State follows Hollywood’s usual method of only flirting with subversion. Criticism of authorities is ultimately restricted to bad individuals and rogue factions within the present authority. The problem, Enemy of the State suggests, was Reynolds and his minions, and not the NSA or legislation seeking to erode privacy rights. Thus, the film moves from subversion to resolution. Once the villains are inevitably weeded out, the viewer is encouraged to believe that the problem has been fixed, and the systemic issues that may have facilitated such abuses are effaced.

7 out of 10

Enemy of the State (USA, 1998)

Directed by Tony Scott; written by David Marconi; starring Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Regina King, Lisa Bonet, Jack Black, Jason Lee, Barry Pepper, Jamie Kennedy, Seth Green, Gabriel Byrne, Jake Busey, Scott Caan, and Tom Sizemore.