Tony Scott’s “Enemy Of The State’ (1998)

After a brief stint in television, Tony Scott returned to features and his longtime producing team, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.  Their collaboration resulted in ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998), a frenetic thriller that capitalized on an increasing public paranoia over government surveillance capabilities in the internet age.  While dealing with its potent themes in a typically ham-handed fashion, the film has proved over time to be eerily prescient on the government’s tendency to abuse this significant power.

I remember seeing the trailer for ENEMY OF THE STATE when it was released, but mainly because at twelve years old, I was becoming cognizant of movies as a business as well as an art form.  I had only started making films myself a year earlier, and as such was beginning to pay attention to films as something more than just entertainment.  However, since it was rated R, there was no way in hell I was going to see it anytime soon.  As it turned out, my first viewing ENEMY OF THE STATE was only a few days ago, nearly fifteen years after its release.

The film concerns Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), a DC labor lawyer who finds himself on the run from the NSA when he comes into possession of a videotape recording the murder of a prominent statesman.  Initially clueless as to why he’s the target of the secretive organization, his attempts to find the truth make him more aware of the extent of their surveillance operations.  It’s a high-concept, big budget idea that’s perfectly suited to Scott’s sensibilities.  Furthermore, ENEMY OF THE STATE is the first film that embodies Scott’s post-90’s aesthetic– one that deals in extreme color manipulation, frenetic camerawork and rapid-fire pacing.

The performances in the film, while not terribly memorable, are solid enough to hold their own against Scott’s aggressive direction.  ENEMY OF THE STATE was released as Will Smith was becoming a major film star, but he wisely plays down his comedic roots for a more grounded and subdued performance.  While it’s not as accomplished as some of his later, more serious work (such as Michael Mann’s ALI (2001)), it’s a great example of his capability to believably achieve that range.  Jon Voight plays the NSA executive who carries out the central murder, and who then must cover up his tracks as the truth leaks out.  He’s cold, relentless and methodical– believable both as someone who would be trusted to head the most secretive surveillance agency in the world, and as the main antagonist.

The supporting cast is made up of familiar faces, who were still breaking through at the time of its release.  Barry Pepper plays Voight’s right-hand man with a palpable degree of menace and competency.  Tom Sizemore makes his second appearance in a Scott film, showing up here as a thuggish business owner (and not some gruff war junkie like he’s known for).  Scott Caan is memorable only for the fact that he’s made a name for himself recently on ENTOURAGE and HAWAII-FIVE-O.  The film also has some fun with the hacker subculture, personified here by Seth Green and Jamie Kennedy working in full-on geek mode.

Jason Lee plays a small, yet central role as a documentarian who inadvertently discovers that his footage of duck migration patterns has also captured a murder.  Since his big moment is a large chase sequence, the role has some pretty large physical demands.  Thankfully, as a professional skateboarder, Lee is more than capable.  (I also found it pretty funny that he has a University of Oregon mug in his apartment).  Other players include Jack Black, appearing in a much larger capacity than he did in Scott’s THE FAN (1996), as well as small cameos by Phillip Baker Hall and Gabriel Byrne.  And last, but not least, Gene Hackman plays a large role as the reluctant mentor to Smith when he’s in over his head.  I found his inclusion to be inspired casting, not only because of his successful collaboration with Scott in CRIMSON TIDE (1995), but also because its nod to his infamous performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974) as a man besieged by surveillance paranoia.

With ENEMY OF THE STATE, Scott makes a huge break from many of his key technical collaborators.  Newcomer Dan Mindel serves as the Director of Photography, enabling Scott to crystallize a new visual style that he would bring to the remainder of his work.  Shooting on an Anamorphic aspect ratio, the image is high in contrast, with saturated colors and warm tones despite the wintery DC setting.  Dramatic skies abound, as do his signature “light-through-the-blinds” shots.  Camera-work is mostly steady and locked-down, favoring composition rather than movement.  However, when the action kicks in, Scott has no qualms about going completely handheld and frenetic.  Establishing shots gets an epic punch, usually shot from a helicopter circling its subject.  Scott also designs many shots from an overhead perspective to mimic the surveillance themes of the story.

Scott also foregoes another collaboration with Hans Zimmer, choosing instead to work this time around with Trevor Rabin and Harry Gregson-Williams.  It’s an electronic, string-heavy score that’s fairly typical of its time and of it subject matter.  Nothing too memorable.

As time has gone on, it’s fairly easy to poke fun at the film’s heavy-handed approach to government surveillance.  It’s presented as an omniscient eye on every little activity, and even then it’s clear the technology was made up by the writers (a fairly dubious 3-D rotating program for surveillance cameras comes to mind).  A recurring shot features a fairly shoddy CGI satellite whipping around the world and feeding information to the NSA.  Even the opening credits are built around surveillance footage, much like his brother Ridley would do a few years later in BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001).  However, in the fifteen years since its release, the Patriot Act and its fallout have certainly lent the film the proper justification for its paranoid atmosphere.  Even though it’s made with a palpable pre-9/11 innocence in regards to surveillance and terrorism, it’s eerily prescient today.  (Also, am I the only one that noticed that Voight’s character is shown to have his birthday on September 11th, an eerie coincidence given what would happen on that day three years later?)

Ultimately, it’s pretty easy to chalk ENEMY OF THE STATE up to typical, blockbuster/Bruckheimer silliness.  Sure, there are moments of blatant studio ham-handedness (there’s definitely a scene where downtown LA tries to pass for Maryland.  The use of the reflective 2nd Street Tunnel isn’t fooling anybody).  But its prescience can’t be denied, even if it is just popcorn entertainment intended for mass consumption.  In Scott’s canon, ENEMY OF THE STATE is an important work, mainly because its his first, full embrace of a new directorial style that would have an overwhelming effect on his legacy.

ENEMY OF THE STATE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Disney.