Due to my recent viewing of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, I considered a follow-up analysis of Enemy of the State. The more I thought about it, the more I was keen to watch it at the very least. The recent coverage regarding Julian Assange equally struck a chord – and I viewed in the evening at 7:30pm, only hours before director Tony Scott took his own life by jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles. With this in mind, I would like to think that this discussion about Enemy of the State, one of Tony Scott’s finest films, can serve as a tribute to a director who was so much more than, as the media seem to highlight, Ridley’s filmmaker brother.
Three Decades after Nixon
Following my appreciation of The Conversation, it is important to bear in mind the context that I will discuss this film within. Indeed, it is widely regarded as a sequel-in-spirit to The Conversation. There is a wide range of correlations (‘Brills’ costume and hideout, a sequence between Robert and Rachel clearly imitates the conversation which Hackman was obsessed with in The Conversation, photo-image of Hackman, etc) and yet one glaring discrepency – Hackman is Harry Caul in The Conversation, whilst in Enemy of the State, he is revealed as Edward Lyle – with a codename of ‘Brill’. I personally believe this is only because it determines the films as separate. They are both very different stories in narrative-form and, though I don’t know the cost of studios giving permission to create ‘sequels’, I’m sure it is a cost which ultimately was not worth the money. We can see it is ‘supposed’ to be connected, but the clarification of the characters name is just a way the filmmakers can’t get caught-out on copywright issues.
The truth is without question – my issues with The Conversation were specific to the time period. How can a film about surveillance, in the 70’s, be relevant today. The angle screenwriter David Marconi goes for is showing how, if anything, suveillance is more scary, more intrusive – and always used by the government to their own ends. Ironically, The Conversation was successful because the public were suddenly aware – through the actions of Nixon – how surveillance was being used. Enemy of the State shows Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight), a senior member of NSA, completely abuse the power he has been granted, by incorrectly hunting down Lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith). The Conversation always showed the ‘bugger’ professional in his small, crampt, office – somebody hidden away and, in Harry Caul’s case, skilled in surveillance so much, mistakes would be rare. Enemy of the State has huge control rooms and high-paid executives running things … and this power is dangerous and mistakes are inevitably made.
Controlled Chaos in the Control Room
I watched The Bourne Legacy, shortly before and it is fascinating to analyse the direction and editing when showing a control room. In Tony Gilroy’s recent effort, it was merely cutting between one room and what was happening on the streets with Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner). Tony Scott manages to cut between, not only the sequence on the streets, but in addition to this, multiple control stations. One station is based at NSA, another in the back of a van and – to top it off – to add pace, Scott cuts away to satellites above the earth, birds-eye-view shots, CCTV footage and additional monitors that are recording the events. It is always exceptionally clear what is going on and the characters within the control room hold personality (“Wanna blend?”) and our attention. Thematically, these sequences are so important too as it relays the reality of surveillance – and how it covers and tracks our every move. Enemy of the State is a masterpiece when it portrays these sequences – and Tony Gilroy clearly didn’t do his homework because The Bourne Legacy seems to fail at simply cutting between the two places, often repeating the same directions (just in a slightly different manner).
I have kept a passing interest in the recent developments in the Julian Assange news story. It seems that Assange is concerned that, upon his arrest for a “rape and sexual assault” allegation from Sweden, he will then be extradited, from Sweden, to the US to face charges against him regarding his release of information via WikiLeaks.
In Enemy of the State, my favourite monologue from Reynolds is his reaction – and decision – to pursue Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith). It reads as follows:
“I’ve seen killers walk free because the eyewitness was an alcoholic. I’ve seen sex offenders that couldn’t be touched because the victim was a call girl. Credibility. It’s the only currency that means anything on this kind of playing field.”
Harry Caul, in The Conversation, continually questioned the morality of his actions. He was paranoid about the reaction of his clients. Will his surveillance be the leverage someone needs to justify murder? Enemy of the State openly questions morality – but rather than asking whether people should be moral, Enemy of the State assumes it is a given that people are immoral – or at least, everyone has demons in their closet. Thomas Reynold’s uses Robert Clayton Dean’s moments of weakness to wreck his credability. An affair, which Dean and his wife managed to overcome after “four years” of counselling is brought up again.
“I want to know about his parents. I want to know about his gambling problems, his urine samples, his porno rentals. I want to use every means possible to get what we need.”
Everyone has their vices and, with surveillance tracking everyone and everything, it is easy enough to use that vice as leverage over another. With regard to Julian Assange, I question if the allegations held against him are to destroy his credability prior to holding him accountable for his actions under WikiLeaks. Considering we are talking about the nature – and power – of classified information, I don’t think it is too far-a-stretch.
This truly is Tony Scott’s strongest film. On the one hand, it is easy to dub Top Gun as the most critically acclaimed and, with regard to the time-period, you may be right. There is a clear connection between the fast-editing, pace and attitude of Top Gun in comparison to the MTV music videos and sports-adverts that influenced cinema largely in the 1980’s. In this respect, Top Gun was ground-breaking. But I believe Enemy of the State, in the canon of Tony Scott’s films, stands taller. It remains relevant today and, as technology becomes more advanced, you can only worry yourself thinking about how far technology has come since the films release in 1998. (14 years ago now!)
So many elements make this film a perfect storm of flawless filmmaking. The supporting actors in Enemy of the State are possibly the strongest force to be reckoned with – and in a few cases, the most credible roles they have played. Jack Black, Barry Pepper, Jamie Kennedy, Seth Green, Lisa Bonet, Jason Lee, Gabriel Byrne, Philip Baker Hall, Tom Sizemore… the list goes on. Will Smith manages to show that he can hold a serious-drama whilst Gene Hackman and Jon Voight reach their usual heights. The orchestral – but electonic – Trevor Rabin and Harry Gergson-Williams score capturing a sense of classical, ‘old’ elements in a modern age. The electornic clicks, buzzes and effects almost interrupt the sweeping strings – in the same manner that this technology interrupts Dean’s life. Chris Lebenzon’s editing between such a broad range of sources whilst the moody Baltimore is captured so well by cinematographer Daniel Mindel. All of this under the watchful eye of a master: Tony Scott. The fact that it has a subtle connection to The Conversation, is the icing on the cake.