ENEMY OF THE STATE IS AN ACTION/THRILLER FILM THAT WAS RELEASED IN 1998.
IT IS VERY MUCH A PRODUCT OF THE TURBULENT 90S IN THE USA.
The man (usually a man) on the run being pursued by the villains is not a new idea. We need only look at Hitchcock’s 1930s thriller The 39 Steps (from the John Buchan novel) where the hero is on the run from the police for crimes he didn’t commit.
Hitchcock loved this type of narrative, perhaps best seen in his classic 1959 thriller North by Northwest where the hero is being pursued by the police AND by the villains. What? You haven’t watched North by Northwest? Get that sorted.
ENEMY OF THE STATE follows the protagonist (the “hero”) Robert Dean, played by Will Smith, as he is pursued by government agents for information on a political assassination that he doesn’t even know he has.
The National Security Agency stop Dean’s credit cards and ruin his reputation. On the run, Dean teams up with an ex-government surveillance agent (“Brill”), and together they figure out why they are being pursued.
From the opening moments, ENEMY OF THE STATE signals that it is a TECHNOLOGICAL THRILLER, with lots of quick edits, shots of satellites, surveillance footage and either real or recreated CCTV footage.
The premise of the film itself is dependent upon TECHNOLOGY too – the political assassination is filmed accidentally by a nature lover who was filming bird life near the lake. And the reason for the killing is because politicians are trying to force through a bill drastically extending the government’s powers of surveillance over citizens.
“IT’S NOT PARANOIA IF THEY’RE REALLY AFTER YOU”
The paranoid thriller genre thrives on the fear that someone else is in charge, or plotting against you, your family, your colleagues, your country etc. The strapline on the poster for this film says it all. One major section of the film shows the impact on Dean’s family, destroying finances, and almost destroying their relationships.
Unlike The 39 Steps or North by Northwest, the threat is not just the hero being pursued on foot or using public transportation. In ENEMY, the pursuit is also taking place using TECHNOLOGY.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE 90S TO MAKE THE TECHNOFEAR RELEVANT?
- The World Wide Web arrives as an internet service.
- CNN covered The Gulf War in Iraq 24 hours a day.
- Cameras on missiles give audiences a point of view shot as the bomb approached its target.
- The Cold War ends as the USSR collapses – the evil Russian foe has vanished.
- Throughout the 1990s ATM cash machines have cameras installed to record all transactions
Dean is tracked through modern camera technology and through computers connected to the internet.
The main story is about internal politics in Washington – not a foreign country.
His pursuers cancel his credit cards and use ATM cameras to locate his position.
- Los Angeles riots after four LAPD officers are acquitted from beating up a black motorist Rodney King even though it was shown live on TV.
What happens to Dean illustrates injustice in society, alleged conspiracy against innocent individuals.
- Bill Clinton elected president of the USA
- The first “nanny cams” are invented, as parents begin to use hidden cameras to keep an eye on their families.
Distrust of those in power – even at the highest office – Dean is targeted by the Director of the National Security Agency, someone who should be a protector.
Brill plants hidden cameras in a senator’s room – and in Dean’s own home by the end.
- A truck bomb explodes under World Trade Center in New York, 6 are killed, over 1000 injured. After this, the constant monitoring of high-profile locations is more commonplace.
- Surveillance cameras large scales potential targets such as sporting events.
- Branch Davidians (a cult based in Waco, Texas) has a stand-off with authorities at their compound. Dozens die in a fire which occurred on day 51 of a siege as the FBI launched an attack.
The FBI are watching gangster Pintero’s restaurant. The gangsters do not see the FBI as a threat.
CCTV cameras, traffic cameras and helicopter cams are tracking Dean.
An innocent call from a payphone, combined with security cameras in a gas station lead the villains straight to Brill and Dean.
- Paula Jones, a former employee of Arkansas State, accuses President Clinton of sexual harassment.
The powerful in society who we should trust are corrupt and untrustworthy. The senator cheats on his wife. The NSA target Dean, his family and Brill.
- Oklahoma City bombing kills 168 and wounds 800 – worst domestic terrorist bombing in US history.
- OJ Simpson trial – former football player and movie star is acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife and her partner. Plays out on TV over nine months, worldwide publicity.
- A budget crisis forces the government to shut down for several weeks.
The danger in ENEMY is from within the country – not from foreign enemies. The government cannot be trusted to manage things properly.
AND SO IT CONTINUED
As the film was released, President Clinton was being impeached for lying about his sexual relationship with a White House intern. Shortly afterwards, the very real fear of computers failing to work when we reached the year 2000 (“The Millennium Bug”) became a huge worry on a global scale. And in 1999, there was the reveal of ECHELON, a secret surveillance program shared by countries including the USA and the UK which could intercept private communications. Those in power and those who controlled the technology couldn’t be trusted.
Of course, it would be another 5-6 years before Facebook and Twitter appeared…
I’m not arguing that all these historic events inspired the film, and I can’t obviously connect the film to the news events that happened after its release, you must surely consider if these events in society contributed to the creation of the movie. We must also consider that a tough disillusionment of the 1990s attracted people to watch a conspiracy thriller in the winter of 1998.
As an interesting aside, the character of Brill, the ex-surveillance operative is played by Gene Hackman, who had played a similar character (albeit with less of an action-packed life) in the classic 1970s conspiracy thriller THE CONVERSATION.
The funny thing is that today ENEMY OF THE STATE, while a great thriller, directed in that hyperkinetic frenzied style of the brilliant Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu), looks just a little bit dated.
THIS FILM IS 21 YEARS OLD
ITS NOT GETTING BETTER
Advancements in technology in the past two decades mean that most of us can be easily profiled and traced through the technology we carry around in our pockets. Our phones continually ping mobile towers, our GPS records our movements, our browsers record our every search, and of course, our microphones record and store our conversations. Probably.
For decades we feared the enemy, then we feared our leaders and then it was technology. Who do we fear today?
DO YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE?
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
Rising Sun (1993)
The Net (1995)
Mercury Rising (1998)