This film review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on January 15, 1999
Directed by Tony Scott
Written by David Marconi
Starring Will Smith, Gene Hackman and Jon Voight
Americans have a fascination with paranoid thrillers: it seems to come with the territory of living in the USA in the late 20th century. One of the flashiest in this genre is Enemy of the State, under the directorial hand of Britisher Tony Scott (Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide). Enemy of the State is a tight, action “simple man overcomes the odds” adventure, but it will make a whole lot more sense if you have seen Francis Ford Coppola’s eerily scary The Conversation (1974). Gene Hackman starred in that film as an expert espionage “listener” who found himself way over his head.
So it is no surprise that Gene Hackman returns to co-star in Enemy of the State as “Brill”, a mysterious loner and expert at espionage and bugging. But the marquee star of this film is Will Smith (Independence Day, Six Degrees of Separation, Men In Black), who plays Robert Dean, a hot shot labour attorney in Washington, D.C. who gets inadvertently drawn into a National Security Agency dirty tricks plot gone bad. Smith, of course, is African-American, as is his on-screen wife Carla (Regina King) and old flame Rachel (Lisa Bonet). His is a classic Harrison Ford Fugitive-type role, and amidst the loud action and tension-building, the colour-blind casting (increasingly seen in recent years with Denzel Washington and others) is a major Hollywood breakthrough. Also of interest are the only Jewish characters in the film: Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee, from Chasing Amy), a nature photographer who accidentally stumbles upon the NSA plot, and Lenny Bloom (Grant Heslov), a radio station manager, are both ex-radicals who – unlike Dean – have in-built paranoia and instinctively know that there is a plot afoot. It is an fascinating (and probably unintended) message: generally the WASP’s are bad, and the blacks and Jews are the good guys.
Once Dean is identified as having a dangerously incriminating videotape, he is stripped of his life as the upper-class lawyer and forced to rely on his own basic survival skills against a powerful web of power-hungry and ruthless security agents led by Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight, in his best Mission Impossible mode). The “pitch” of this film is that the spy hypertechnology being used to track Dean (including satellites which can virtually read his lips) is not fantasy, but in day-to-day usage. This is every American’s nightmare to have the power of the state used against them.
Enemy of the State frequently achieves its heart-thumping and adrenalin-pumping goals: the scrapes are nasty ones, the script is fast-paced and tight, and the direction polished. But it is the wide range of interesting minor characters – full, rich, quirky – including Jason Robards in an uncredited role as a Senator, Gabriel Byrne as a shadowy spy, and a wide variety of Mafia and security types – that gives this film its real depth and sets it apart from your standard thriller.
Enemy of the State is very late 1990s: it portrays a cynical American Government which is post-Watergate, post-Clinton sex scandal, made by baby-boomers still thinking about the 1960’s. It is far less psychologically gripping than The Conversation, but an entertaining outing.