A Film Review (in the form of a Q/A session) by Mark O'Hara
Q: Tony Scott has a reputation as a solid director of action films.
Describe scenes from "Enemy of the State" that perpetuate this idea.
A: After a well-done but rather conventional opening, the credits roll,
probably unwatched, over frenetic vantages of Washington D.C. exteriors,
spliced into shots of high-tech monitors, screens showing vehicles
tracked from satellites 155 miles above the Earth. Several times the
camera freezes and jerks in perspective, creating an effect both
fascinating and dizzying. Early on we witness chase scenes that leave
us panting. One idea established early is that the government
agents-gone-wrong - the ones doing the chasing - are ruthless and
amoral; they are young and fleet of foot, their short hair standing up
with gel. What is noticeable is the frequency of their failure,
especially after they stop merely trying to trace Robert Dean (Will
Smith) and really try to rub him out. This is a necessary convention.
The pursuit we see is tense and original, showing the tenacity of one
man, usually on foot, trying to recover his life. In a sequence inside
a tunnel, Dean flees on foot as the agents converge; in a slick stunt
he slips just in time out of a ventilation shaft and back into the
tunnel, where he once again uses his wits to disappear. The vehicle
chases are not as stunning as those in "Bullitt" or "The French
Connection," but the scenes of Dean - and especially of Dean and Brill
(Gene Hackman) escaping together -- are well choreographed and essential
to the theme of individuals triumphing over a culture in which privacy
is taking heavy hits. Scott shows his experience as a director with a
penchant for action.
Q: Describe camera angles or shots that establish a mood of tension.
A: There are nifty Dutch angles arranged during an argument between
Dean and his wife Carla (Regina King), her canted face yelling back at
him. Clearly, Dean's life is being turned on end. We watch a surplus
of scenes taken from satellites, as the operatives for the National
Security Agency track their prey, bodies or cars bracketed by target
lines as if about to be smart-bombed. Everywhere we look there is a
sense of paranoia, including scenes in which the FBI is staking out an
Italian restaurant. In these aspects the film hearkens back to things
Copollian - "The Godfather," "The Conversation," even the eerily dark
Q: Describe the qualities that veteran actors Jason Robards (as Senator
Hammersly) and Gabriel Byrne (as the pseudo-Brill) bring to their brief
A: Their appearances are short but masterful. As Hammersly, Robards'
acting is as transparent as the prose of a well-seasoned writer. We
believe he is principled enough to refuse an offer he shouldn't have
refused, and the plot hinges on his wrong decision. In his role as
"Brill," Byrne acts with smooth efficiency and assurance, completing his
assignment of throwing off both Robert Dean and the viewer. What
Q: How do you think the role of Robert Clayton Dean affects the career
of Will Smith?
A: A good move. I heard it said that this is his first starring role,
but wasn't he at the head of the ensemble casts - if they can be so
called - of "Independence Day" and "Men In Black"? (Plus, he's garnered
the lines of James West, after first being touted as Artie Gordon, in
"The Wild, Wild West.") Smith once again proves likable and believable
in the way he relates to others, and he even manages to pull off two or
three stints of comic relief in this chase-heavy drama. A cultural
aside: Smith makes a canny self-reference to race when a mobster makes
a bad choice of words. Other than this, Smith and his wife and son,
along with Lisa Bonet as Rachel, are the only blacks in the cast; not
much African-American culture is reflected here. And there are two
Hispanics, one a nanny, the other a maid. The last word: I will pay to
see Smith again, partly because I like his advocating of discipline and
responsibility, both in his acting and in his music.
Q: Critique Gene Hackman's performance as Brill.
A: Ahead of the ideas and Smith's performance, Hackman is the best
thing about the movie. First, his looks are perfect - a sixty-something
original "techie" who went underground after a debacle in Iran in 1980.
He is appropriately grizzled and stoic, his hypoglycemia adding to his
gruffness. Brill has "disappeared" himself and surfaces only when
contracted to gather information. As he demonstrates through his
expression, his easy way of characterizing complex personalities, and
his collection of subtle mannerisms, Hackman is one of the very best
Q: Explain the main conflict of the film.
A: After a member of Congress dies mysteriously, a Washington labor
lawyer, Robert Dean, finds his career ruined and his life in grave
danger. Officials in a renegade division of the National Security
Agency are trying to recover a recording of the Senator's murder, and
they stop at almost nothing along the way. (At least they do not kidnap
the wife or kid: that would have turned the film into the worst kind of
"jep" story.) For quite a while Dean does not know the reason he is
being hunted; he thinks a mob boss is after him. In an ingenious
conclusion, the main narrative meshes into the subplot involving the
mobster's videotape the villains on both sides meeting in the kitchen of
the Italian restaurant. Another twist is that something happens to the
tape of the murder, and Dean enlists Brill's help to turn the tables on
the government thugs. Yes, this film will inspire paranoia among many
viewers, but a little thinking about the real speed of most government
agencies will provide a sense of security!
Q: Is there too much action in the film? Are there enough ideas to
balance with the action?
A: Having heard from one critic that the film was nothing but a
collection of slick chase scenes, I went into the theater wary. I was
pleasantly taken aback when I was not only entertained by the action,
but fascinated by the implications. "Enemy of the State" is layered
with meanings, ideas that build momentum just as surely as the plot
builds to a climax. Because of how subtly these ideas accumulate, the
film is deceptive in its power. We witness scene after scene of
relentless pursuits, deteriorating personal lives, and a host of other
cliches. Nevertheless, the material works. For one, we feel close to
Dean and Brill; the number of jams they fall into and climb out of
finally pushes the film well past mediocrity. And the handling of the
issues of personal privacy, loyalty, and morality provides the viewer
with plenty outlets for intelligent thought. I'm reminded of how a
rather mediocre story like "Mr. Holland's Opus," through its time span
and patient presentation of themes, became an outstanding film. "Enemy
of the State" is from a different genre, but I think some of the same
Q: Would you recommend the film to a friend? Why or why not?
A: Yes, and I would urge the friend to feel free to hate it if he or
she finds reason. Over the last several months, I have come across many
negative early reviews, only to hear later that a film is excellent.
Will I stop reading reviews of films before I see them? Of course not.
But I'll remember how crucial it is to think for myself about the
quality of a film, and I'll remember that part of that quality is highly
subjective: Was it pleasing to me, and if it has been judged a poor
film, were the critics' words valid? "Enemy of the State" contains some
objectionable language, but mostly its R rating comes from violent
scenes, especially one near the end. I think most viewers will be
captivated by both its quick wit and action.
Copyright © 1998 Mark OHara