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Enemy of the State-You are being watched

September 4, 2012

How do we draw the line – draw the line between protection of national security, obviously the government’s need to obtain intelligence data, and the protection of civil liberties, particularly the sanctity of my home? You’ve got no right to come into my home!- Larry King 

(Spoiler Alert- Some key scenes and moments of the movie are discussed in the post, reader please note).

In one of the scenes in Enemy of the State, when NSA agents are trying to get the information on a certain “Brill”, the file shows up a picture of Gene Hackmann from The Conversation.  The reference is not just a nod to the 70’s thrillers; it in a way is a tribute to the theme of the movie itself.  Francis Ford Copolla’s 1974 conspiracy thriller had Gene Hackmann, as a surveillance expert, living a lonely life, and whose only other hobby is playing jazz.  In one of the most  devastating movie endings ever,  Hackmann  suspects  his own  apartment is  bugged, tears it down to  discover  signs of any surveillance, and then  sits amidst the wreck, playing the saxophone.  It is not just  the  fact  that  Hackmann who played the surveillance  expert Caul  in The Conversation,  does  a similar turn  here in Tony Scott’s  thriller.  Pretty much like Caul in The Conversation, Hackmann’s Brill is a loner, paranoid of strangers.  His utilitarian, no frills workshop is pretty much similar to the one he works in The Conversation.  The 70’s was a decade when Hollywood came up with a whole lot of conspiracy thrillers.  Watergate  had  created a paranoia in the average citizen, that  they were being watched by  the  Government,  of  shadowy agents  indulging  in  conspiracy on their own lives and a distrust of  Government in general.   Chinatown, Parallax View, All the President’s Men, 3 Days of the Condor, a whole slew of movies, exploring the link between Capitol Hill, big business, media, CIA, Feds trying to subvert the laws for their own purposes came up in succession.

We never dealt with domestic. With us, it was always war. We won the war. Now we’re fighting the peace. It’s a lot more volatile. Now we’ve got ten million crackpots out there with sniper scopes, sarin gas and C-4. Ten-year-olds go on the Net, downloading encryption we can barely break, not to mention instructions on how to make a low-yield nuclear device. Privacy’s been dead for years because we can’t risk it. The only privacy that’s left is the inside of your head. Maybe that’s enough. You think we’re the enemy of democracy, you and I? I think we’re democracy’s last hope.

On the surface of it, Enemy of the State, looks like any other “man on the run” genre movie.  Innocent man wanted by the bad guys goes on a run, lots of chases, high voltage action scenes, tension filled dramatics you have it all.  Like most other  Tony Scott  movies,  this  movie has  enough  adrenaline to keep  the  action fans  satisfied,  couple  of chase  scenes, a warehouse  explosion  and the final shootout.  However  there  are no  really big twists there,  Scott  establishes  the villain  of  the  piece  right  at  the  start of the  movie.  In this case it is  National Security Agency official  Thomas Reynolds(Jon Voight),  a National Security Agency official, seeking to get the approval of  Congress  for a new bill,  that would  increase  surveillance powers.   The catch here though  is a senior Congressman,  Phil Hamersley( veteran actor  Jason Robards in an uncredited appearance),  who  opposes  a bill  “that   allows the NSA to point a camera  and a microphone at anything they damn well feel like”.   Hamersley’s deposition is critical to the passage of the bill, as he is a negotiator on the sub Committee that is studying the said bill. Predictably,  one of  Reynold’s  henchmen, bumps off  Hamersley, and plants  evidence to make it  look  like an  accidental  death.  There is a slight catch there though,  the  murder  has been  inadvertently  recorded  on the camera set up by a wildlife researcher Daniel Zavitz( Jason Lee),  to capture birds in the park.

In the old days, we actually had to tap a wire into your phone line. Now with calls bouncing off satellites, they snatch’em right out of the air. That was 20 years ago.

The murder scene is  followed by a rather  interesting  opening credits  scene,  with  shots  of  satellite tracking  cams, spy cams,  images  recorded on web camera.    As a  series  of  jump cuts, blurred images, intercut with  shots  of  satellite tracking,  pass by in a dizzying  blur, Tony Scott, sets up the basic  premise of the movie “You are being watched”,  an almost  1984  Orwellian landscape.   In  fact  throughout  the  movie  the spy  satellite, tracking us  from outer space, forms the basic leitmotif of the movie, playing a major  role in most  of  the  scenes.  Take the scene where Zavitz is chased to his death by Robards men, the way Scott sets it up.  In an earlier  scene,  when  TV news channels  are  covering  the “accidental  death”  of  Hamersley, one of  Robard’s  lackeys, observes  Zavitz  taking  out  the camera  he had set up.  Zavitz himself is not aware of the potentially explosive information that the video recording had.  We see through a series  of  jump cuts,  zooming shots, the NSA tracking down  Zavitz’s  home,  a certain Jack Black here  as  one of the phone tappers.  It  is  the scene  where  Zavitz  is  chased  by  Robard’s  lackeys,  that  is however  brilliantly  shot by Tony  Scott.  It is  not  just  the adrenaline and  tempo,  or  the tension,  it is the  way  Scott  keeps  intercutting  scenes  of  Zavitz  being  chased  with  that  of  the satellite  tracking  him  from outer space,  the  aerial map like shots of the city  streets. In a way, the spy  satellite  turns  out  to be the main character,  towering  over  every one literally speaking, and having  the  power to change  one’s  destiny.  In fact  throughout  the  movie,  the  feel is  certainly Orwellian, of  a nightmarish  scenario, where you are being  watched, tracked,  your  every  moment  recorded.

Fort Meade has 18 acres of mainframe computers underground. You’re talking to your wife on the phone and you use the word “bomb”, “president”, “Allah”, any of a hundred keywords, the computer recognizes it, automatically records it, red-flags it for analysis. That was 20 years ago.

And  that nightmare  is  just  about to begin for  Robert Dean( Will Smith),  a labour  lawyer, living  what  seems the American dream,  well off,   a nice happy family, wife,  kids,  a nice looking  home.  Scott  sets  up  certain  aspects  of   Dean’s life early on though,  his  relationship  with Rachel Banks( Lisa Bonet),  his  ex girlfriend, now  his professional acquaintance,  the mention of  the  mysterious  “Brill”  whose  assistance  Dean needs for a case. When Zavitz  fleeing  from the  goons,  stumbles  upon  Dean in a store, he drops in the  cassette  containing  the  incriminating  recording  into  his  bag.  Dean is  unaware  of  the  cassette’s   contents,  and  equally unaware  of  the  nightmare  that  is in store  for  him, as he comes back, looking forward  to a  nice  Christmas with  wife  and son.  Unaware to Dean however, in the NSA office, his details are being tracked on a computer, as his details start coming out.  It is  scary to see the computer, give out  each and every detail  of  Dean, from  his  bank transactions,  insurance policies, credit  history,  tax returns,  nothing  is  private. It is like your  whole life is  open up to display, by  some  people in a  Govt agency, who could  use  it  against  you.   Dean  has  the  incriminating evidence,  that  could nail Robards, he does not even know it, but NSA does, and  right now  he is  the biggest  threat, an “enemy of  the state”.   Without knowing it, every detail of Dean’s activities are being recorded, his phone is tapped.  Again another  superb scene  follows, where  the  spy satellites  track down the  scene of the accident,  and through  recordings  establish  that  Dean indeed has  that  evidence.  “Big brother is watching you” could never have been more prophetic.

Dean’s home is raided by the team, bugs, special cameras are placed all over, when he returns back home with wife Stacy, he is shocked to see the entire home ransacked.  He is however unaware that right at the moment a camera installed in his home is tracking him.  In fact throughout  the movie  Tony  Scott,  keeps driving home the  point,  “You are being watched”  with  the  constant  close-ups  of  spy cameras, satellites.  Unable to get the clinching evidence from Dean, NSA deploys its dirty tricks department to wreck Dean’s life.    They  hoist a  case  of  Dean  passing  confidential  information to  his  ex girl Rachel,  put out  the story in the newspapers, fix him up.  In a matter of  hours  Dean’s  entire  life  is turned upside down,  he is fired  from his  job,  publicly  disgraced, his  wife  leaves  him,  a  total fuck up in all ways.   A past  affair  Dean had  outside  marriage with Rachel  comes back to haunt him, wrecking  both  his  personal  and  professional life.   And  that  is  just  the beginning of his  woes,  none  of  his  credit  cards work,  means  he  is  unable  to  book  himself  into any hotel.   His ATM card is disabled, he can’t withdraw money either.  In  fact it  just shows  our  over dependence on technology,  what  would  happen  one  fine day,  if  everything  just  stops working.   Add to it, Dean  gets  no  cooperation from people,  who  in fact  take a vicarious  delight  in a lawyer  getting  his just desserts.  With  Rachel  expressing  her  helplessness, considering  she  herself is  being  tracked, the only one  who can  help  Dean out is  “Brill”.

The government’s been in bed with the entire telecommunications industry since the forties. They’ve infected everything. They get into your bank statements, computer files, email, listen to your phone calls… Every wire, every airwave. The more technology used, the easier it is for them to keep tabs on you. It’s a brave new world out there. At least it’d better be.

 After an  encounter with a  fake “Brill”,  that  almost  kills  him,  Dean  comes  in touch with the  real “Brill”  who in  fact is  an ex NSA  agent  Edward  Lyle( Gene Hackmann), reclusive, shadowy,  not  too visible.  One of the best scenes in the movie follows here.  On one side, the NSA agents trying to track down Dean and you have   Lyle helping him out.  The problem  is  every  part of  Dean  has  been  rigged  up, his shoes, his wallets,  his  coat, his pants,  of  which  he  is  unaware.    Lyle  helps  Dean  to  remove  every part  of  his  attire to throw  his chasers  off  track.  Scott  uses  a mix of  jump cuts,  intercutting  shots,  freeze frames,  as  on one hand,  every time  Dean  removes  one of the tracing devices on his body,  it  goes  off  on the  monitor.   And  it  comes to the stage  where  Dean is  just  in his shorts and underwear,  and  there  is  another  chase  scene, with him  escaping  his  pursuers  dressed  just  in a robe, dodging  escaping  cars.

Enemy  of  the  State, has  all  the  ingredients  that  would  satisfy  hard core  popcorn action  fans,  some  breathtakingly  filmed  chase  scenes,  a man on  the  run,  an old wizened  veteran  assisting  him  in turning  the  tables,  a  bunch  of  ruthless  villains  who  would stop at  nothing  and a  Mexican standoff  climax.   Unlike  more  cerebral  movies  like The  Conversation,  All The President’s  Men,  this  one is  more of a fast  and  furious  action,  that  leaves  you  on the  edge  of  the  seat.  But  beneath  all  that  furious  action,  lies  an  underlying  message  that  keeps  staring  at  us in the  face.   Considering the  fact  that  Dean was being  targeted  and  chased  just  because  he  had  an  incriminating  evidence,  the  fact  that  one  fine  day  you  could  be  targeted  makes  it  so  scary.  You  see  the  computer  spitting  out  all the  details of   Dean, his  personal, professional, financial  ones,  and  you  just  feel  that bit  concerned  that  some one  somewhere  is watching  your  records  too.  And  it’s  not  just  a paranoia  too, consider  what  is  happening  around  us.  The news we get to hear of people’s accounts on Social media sites being monitored, blocked in some cases.  and  if  you  happen  to be  a dissident  against  the  Government  policies, the  chances  of  you  being  tracked  are that much  more.   As Lyle mentions it’s a brave new world out there and scary too.

Tony Scott has a thing or two for casting the right actors in the right roles.  Gene  Hackmann had earlier  played  the role of a surveillance  expert  in The Conversation,  and  his  role  is  what gives  the  strength  to  the  movie.  In  fact  the  true  hero of  the movie,  he is  the  one  who  guides  Will Smith  around,  plots  the   strategy against  the  bad guys,  outwits  them.   And  Hackmann  just chews  up  the scenery  with  relish,  this is a role that  is just  tailor made  for   him.   Will Smith gives  an  equally good performance,  as  the helpless  ordinary American guy,  who  gets  caught  up in an extraordinary  mess beyond  his  control.  The  movie  has  a strong  supporting  cast too,  Jack Black  as  a communications expert who taps other’s  conversations,   Jon Voight  as the master villian, pitching in with  some real good performances.

  1. This remains an amazing thriller even after all the years since — probably and especially more after 9/11. I’ve pulling and re-watching this for a number of years, and it still holds up well. Great piece on this Tony Scott film, Ratnakar. Well done (particularly when brought up with ‘The Conversation’).

    • Thanks once again Mike, yes this is one movie that is much more relevant after 9/11 and Patriot Act. The Conversation was a more cerebral classic, this was a more action packed version of it, but nevertheless message is clear “You are being watched”.

  2. Another interesting piece. This is my favourite Tony Scott film, principally because it works with the director’s sensibilities so perfectly. Fast-paced, kinetic camerawork, heroes and villains – it makes for a truly entertaining film that hurtles along at breakneck speed. I also think it is quite forward thinking even if the technology might be a little dated (although the technology “they” use today is probably not known publicly at the moment). But the idea of Big Brother watching our everyday move feels so fresh. Of course, today, even the most rudimentary “tracker” could piece together someone’s whereabouts and actions through their twitter updates…one reason I would never use a system such as FourSquare (can’t understand why anyone would use this publicly, although I do see the merits of it when limited to a friendship group).

    • Thanks Dan, when I was watching the movie again, it reminded me so much uncomfortably of the fact “We are being Watched”. In US you have that Patriot Act, and all those surveillance things, while in India we are fighting a running battle with the Govt, that seeks to block social media, and websites critical of it. Enemy of the State, can be any one whom the Govt feels it is it’s opponent.

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