The film of the year is Enemy of the State. I don’t ordinarily go in for pronouncements like that, let alone make them in July; but we live in unusual times, and in this case the month hardly matters. Enemy of the State came out in 1998.
In those days, the op-ed chorus was not yet chanting that 9/11 had changed everything, and Edward Snowden, future leaker of the National Security Agency’s secrets, was a 15-year-old high school student. In retrospect, maybe a film critic could be forgiven for having laughed off Enemy of the State, interpreting it as a projection of the conflicts within producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s psyche, rather than praising it as a reasonably accurate depiction, in pop movie images, of the power of a hidden government, permanent and unaccountable. To see my error, look up my column in The Nation from December 14, 1998. For a preview of Snowden’s revelations and their impact in 2013, watch Enemy of the State.
It is the story of an all-seeing National Security Agency that already treats the laws against domestic surveillance as the flimsiest of fictions—accessing and cross-referencing your telephone records and bank accounts at will, deploying satellite cameras that can “read the time off your fuckin’ wristwatch”—but intends to accrue still more power through passing a Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act. Under its terms, “privacy” is what individual citizens will formally surrender to the NSA, in exchange for putative protection against terrorists. “Security” is what the NSA will gain for its budget and operations, in perpetuity.
Anyone who appears to threaten the enactment of this legislation, even unknowingly—as does Will Smith, here in the youthful fullness of his lankiness and charm—may run all he likes from the NSA’s death squad but will always remain in plain view of his pursuers. Without understanding how or why, Smith is caught in a conflict between freedom and constraint that director Tony Scott translates, cinematically, into the juxtaposition of different points of view and types of space. To himself, Smith is a human being, dashing through three-dimensional streets, tunnels, industrial warehouses and railyards. To the NSA, Smith is a blip within a two-dimensional computer image, to be tracked, zoomed into and obliterated.
Watching Enemy of the State in the year of Snowden, I’m struck by the jocularity of the NSA technicians. Played by actors (Jack Black, Jamie Kennedy) chosen for a raffishness that is less than fully adult, they not only instigate and observe Smith’s desperate troubles but also narrate them mockingly in real time. Incurious about the purpose of their jobs, the tech boys take for granted the existence of a massive telecommunications apparatus and simply enjoy the cheap sense of superiority it offers them, as if they were couch-bound buddies riffing on a shabbily predictable TV show.
In exposing this mentality, this bland and self-congratulatory illusion of sharing in great power without having to accept responsibility for it, Enemy of the State was prescient about the shrug with which many Americans would respond to Snowden’s leak. But then, the nasty joke built into Enemy of the State—a joke that has even more sting in 2013—is that prescience is unnecessary. When I first saw the film, I complained that the fictional Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act was too thin a contrivance to drive the plot (the movie’s version of the NSA already having whatever it wants), and that Gene Hackman, in the role of a former NSA spook, is too much of a mouthpiece for the filmmakers. (Disclosure: I know one of the uncredited screenwriters, Henry Bean. We knew each other in 1998, too.) Back then, Hackman’s instructive rants against the covert government seemed to me to blend into the general Bruckheimer-Scott silliness, like the obligatory orange fireball, the gratuitous parade of lingerie models and Smith’s formulaic demand, “I want my life back.”