Enemy of the State vs. The Net

Ahh, the National Security Agency is such an easy target these days.

The NSA takes a lot of heat for keeping us all secure. Both Enemy of the State and The Net do a fine job asking the question: “but at what cost?”

Gone are the nostalgic days of yore and the Red Scare, when the enemies were not so abstract. Eisenhower nationalism is also a thing of the past which is now scoffed in film. Perhaps it’s because we’re a much more cynical people now, scrutinizing more simply for the sake of more readily available information.

Since the Cold War and precarious peacetime, we find new enemies within. Our federal government has inspired dozens of films and television shows alike (“The X Files”, anyone?). The FBI has been the culprit in more than a few Hollywood movie plot lines, as well as the CIA in others.

Now it’s the NSA’s turn. We saw it a few years ago with the excellent film Sneakers. Enemy of the State is yet another installment of the technophile conspiracy theory fear factory. But don’t get me wrong; it was just as great a movie.

I found it hard to pin down one movie it was most alike. Enemy was most clearly a Hitchcock clone, as was The Net, echoing the genre-defining North by Northwest, pitting a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time hero (or heroine) against an unstoppable antagonist. That said, Hitchcock’s film was in a sense an anachronism, ahead of its time by depicting such an early glimpse of Machiavellianism. Later, other such films would be so bold with domestic government misdeeds, as in The Manchurian Candidate.

Parallels

  • Hitchcockian scripts / heroes
  • Hi-tech cyber espionage
  • Competent production staffs
  • Consequences of the information age

Although Net takes a slightly different direction with its premise, Sandra Bullock’s Ms. Bennett is the same central figure. She’s a computer software beta tester who lives online. As an independent contractor, there’s no need for an office or chain of corporate command. She even shops online so there isn’t much need for human contact. The only thing she can’t get from cyberspace is a vacation (the beach, that is; not the plane tickets). That’s where her world turns upside down.

Not the NSA but just as bad, we discover that Bennett’s foes are a computer security firm with government ties that plan to hack the world. We see the theme clearly: in the dawn of the information age, a smaller planet can mean smaller civil liberties.

Net was produced and directed by Irwin Winkler, whose most notables were the mob classic GoodFellas, true blue The Right Stuff, and all the Rocky‘s, not to mention a dozen more. It was written by John D. Brancato, who also did the excellent David Fincher thriller The Game.

Back to Enemy, I must admit I was more than a little hesitant of another Jerry Bruckheimer production, especially in light of Armageddon and others. Instead of disappointment, I was thoroughly entertained. This prodded me to figure out what was going on. It turns out that Jerry does two very different types of action movies, depending on who he hires to direct:

  1. Michael Bay films (Armageddon, The Rock, Bad Boys, etc.)
  2. Tony Scott films (Enemy of the State, Crimson Tide, Top Gun, etc.)

The latter type tend to be much more impacting for one resounding reason: script. Resurrected from obscurity, David Marconi wrote a winner with Enemy, painting a truly intriguing story. Most endearing about the story was not its pyrotechnics but its characters. Amazingly, the people stand out more than the explosions, which says a great deal about a Bruckheimer production. Make no mistake, though; the explosions are big and fantastically captured. Hats off to Jerry. Nevertheless, it’s so refreshing to invest genuine interest in the people that are trying to escape them.

Take for instance Will Smith. I was a little fearful that his defiant, hipster schtick from Independence Day and Men in Black would precede him here also. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. Hark! Mr. Smith can hold his own in a dramatic scene, without the need of explosions. He does an admirable job with the mistaken-identity scenario.

Supporting him are two fine performances by Lisa Bonet, the ex-Cosby Show femme, who plays Smith’s former-lover-turned-surveillance-contact; and Regina King who plays his empowered civil-liberties-activist wife. Not much needs to be said about Mr. Hackman nor Mr. Voight. These veritable legends speak for themselves. It’s pure delight to see these guys completely absorb a scene, mesmerizing the younger actors. It’s even more fun to get to watch two really sinister character actors do their thing in the same movie.

Jon Voight, who’s played more diabolical roles in the latter half of his career, just seethes with badguyness. See The Rainmaker, Rosewood, and Mission: Impossible for starters. Likewise, Gene has developed a knack for the antagonist in Absolute Power as the sniveling perverted President (any relation to the current administration is coincidental), in Extreme Measures as an evil doctor, and in The Firm as a corrupt lawyer. One would think these two would fall victim of typecasting. Yet, somehow, they’ve both been able to retain some semblance of disassociation from their roles and maintain a screen dignity.

Despite being only a cameo appearance, Gabriel Byrne can’t seem to stay away from hi-tech surveillance thrillers. He was in last year’s The End of Violence, which was similar in theme, minus any action or remote inkling of pace.

Now, back to the National Security discussion.

The Evolution of Nerd

What I couldn’t help but wonder was why the brunt of the NSA’s operations was staffed with post-Hackers rejects. It’s a relatively new typecast (contrary to the staying power of Hackman and Voight): the young MTV-wasteland computer nerds that have way too much fun at work, where there doesn’t ever seem to be a dress code. Against a stark backdrop of Secret Service suits there are torn jeans, dyed hair, and pierced appendages hunched behind mainframe terminals. In casting this nerd ensemble, Jerry and his gang pooled a bunch of cyberpunk resumes together and this is what they got:

  • Seth Green – DNA test-tube offspring of Dr. Evil in Austin Powers
  • Jamie Kennedy – horror film buff in Scream 1 and 2
  • Bodhi Elfman – character named “Math Guy” in Armageddon; hacker in Mercury Rising (another hi-tech government corruption flick)
  • Jack Black – weapons machinist in the abysmal remake The Jackal

Putting together this kind of group was risky in a movie that otherwise took itself seriously. Yet, because computers and technology increasingly become the stomping ground of youth, I think Jerry may be on to something. Still, it’s the kind of casting decision that will either cause you to hate the movie as a whole, or forgive it despite the geek-punk characters.

Corniness aside, Enemy also raised some valid questions of government supremacy (as did Net). At what point does the citizenry forfeit its rights to ensure foreign relations? For instance, if phone taps and video surveillance prevent sarin gas from entering the country, isn’t it worthwhile? But then our private lives become the subject of Orwellian suspicion. This sort of infringement was also depicted in The Siege, in which martial law is declared in New York to control an outbreak of terrorism.

There is a fine line there that isn’t answered in the movie, but instead allows the viewer to ponder for him(her)self. The bonus is that both The Net and Enemy of the State are great action flicks.

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