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Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State
(1998)

Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.


In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up for this for years now, accustoming us to the notion that our spending habits, our location, our every movement and conversation, are visible to others whose motives we cannot know”. The implication that the ills of society are the fault of the movies is as old as cinema itself and it’s frankly ridiculous to suggest that a sprinkling of fictional narratives, be it on film or television, is responsible for a purported sea change in views on personal privacy. It makes for a showy headline on a comment piece, of course. But it would be more accurate to suggest that movies are simply feeding off the ideas that are in the public arena anyway, more than likely the reason Bruckheimer made the project. The surveillance society has been in nascent form since the ‘70s (at least) and has thus been part and parcel of any conversation concerning the capabilities of spycraft. Patterson also fails to consider the likely presiding factor; a world where social media has inured a whole generation to the idea of the value of privacy (in this respect, Enemy is dated). Even if Patterson’s presupposition was conceded, is it better or worse that Hollywood (in his view) has had a grip on a topic decades ahead of the uninquisitive Press?


And even if a film like Enemy is presumed guilty of helping to send the public to sleep while their liberties are quietly removed, it seems that former NSA Director General Michael Hayden’s reaction was quite the opposite. He was appalled by the movie. So much so, he feared the NSAcouldn’t survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie”.


That’s coming in a slightly different direction from the view that Hollywood’s every move is complicit with the powers-that-be. That everything dumped on the impressionable general public is designed to indoctrinate or brainwash them into accepting the decrees of the state or military-industrial complex. Undoubtedly, pressure is exerted and favours are bought; this is a fairly standard part of the parcel of military assistance in movie productions (but it’s also a reason why certain films go their own way; they don’t want toned down or tampered scripts). To suggest that everything will follow course presumes a level of control that ignores the ingrained foibles and incompetences of Hollywood (if the suits were so meticulous in steering product, they would surely never get the whiff a flop).


Every new conspiracy theory now breeds counter conspiracy theories within hours. It’s the nature of the Internet age, and something Oliver Stone’s JFK (which laid the groundwork for the current conspiracy era) couldn’t have imagined.  There’s a line of argument out there that the Snowden release of information is a controlled event by the very forces so up-in-arms that it has occurred, that whatever arcane codes the guys at the top operate by require public acceptance or rejection; the point is that we have to know. Compared to this extreme (the occult, Illuminati-ordained mode of reasoning) other theories look much less extraordinary. For example; the CIA is pissed at the rise in influence of the NSA and was looking to sabotage it. There are any number of variations and sub-theories along the way. In broader terms, this reflects a mindset that assumes any significant crisis, disaster, or tragedy reported by the mainstream media (MSM) has been micromanaged by those with apparently superhuman control over everything. To a degree, there’s an entirely understandable cynicism towards the lies of the establishment and the sheep-like reportage of the (mostly corporate-controlled) MSM at the root of this. But it goes further, actively presupposing there is an opposite truth behind any given event; it could just be that Snowden affair is exactly what it appears to be.


And it could be that Enemy of the State was state-fostered to plant the seeds of acceptance of control in our minds (which ignores that the paranoid will be concerned about such matters anyway, while the “innocent” people won’t be worrying anyway William Hague-style); Bruckheimer is no stranger to military endorsement. Top Gun was a virtual Navy recruitment campaign (and served to function as exactly that). There’s an argument that evidence of such conspiring intent is found in the (oft-seen) reassertion of the status quo at the conclusion of Hollywood movies; the terror inflicted by the authorities on the innocent and good individual comes at the behest of just one rogue element. When he’s dealt with, order is restored. This is (only partially, as we shall see) the case with Enemy of the State. It’s also a common feature of the standard Aaron Sorkin script (more of that in a bit).


But there’s also a fairly mundane reason for such an approach. Sometimes it's about Hollywood worrying who they’re going to offend most so they attempt to fictionalise the offensive element (Patriot Games and its rogue IRA faction, numerous pre-9/11 films with specifically named – invented – Middle Eastern extremists). On other occasions it is simply down to storytelling and box office logic. A story has to be contained. Good has to triumph. If it doesn’t, you can still have a hit movie, but you’re more likely to end up with The Parallax View. And if you’re making a big, big, movie with big, big, stars, that simply isn’t an option.


Further to this, there’s the question of what the return of the status quo achieves. In Enemy’s case it certainly didn’t mean people dismissed the idea that they were being, or could be, monitored (although the ways and means were oft-cited as far-fetched or exaggerated). One might argue it took the weight off because, if you’re a really good person like Will Smith, you will ultimately persevere rather than get crushed like a bug. But that clearly didn’t comfort Hayden. So, if the movie is guilty of brainwashing, you have to ask what kind of brainwashing; more than any of the ‘70s conspiracy thrillers, where the protagonist was part of the machine (Three Days of the Condor) or intentionally getting involved (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men), here there pronouncement is “It could happen to you!”


In his book Reel Power, Matthew Alford attests to the CIA’s advisory role in Hollywood, having set up a liaison office in 1995.  Two Bruckheimer productions, Bad Company and Enemy of the State, are among those cited to have been in consultation.  There is no indication of what was said, or whether the advice was taken. Perhaps the CIA didn’t care if Enemy pissed all over the NSA; it wouldn’t do them any harm (or perhaps there was a beef between the two; either way, if that was the case, it’s difficult to believe that they would ignore how the public tend to conflate such acronym-ious government organisations). Alford is good at dissecting the cons of specific pictures (Bruckheimer’s Blackhawk Down for example), but less persuasive in his attempts to fit any given movie into his unified theory (and the NSA doesn’t even get a mention in his treatise). Tony Scott noted that, in preparation for Enemy, he was given tours of the CIA and NSA. What struck him most was the youth of the staff (“Eighty percent of the guys were in their 20s”), which no doubt informed the badinage between the “nerds” and “jocks”. It seems curious the agencies didn’t offer notes, or request changes. Perhaps they were happy with it at the time (whatever Hayden later says to the contrary); they do come across as rather effective, so maybe it stroked their egos. Perhaps they just assumed no one would believe it…


It should probably come as no surprise that a producer of pro-military movies, however superficial in content (no one is going to accuse him of being a deep movie maker, least of all Bruckheimer himself), should be a donating Republican. It’s probably safe to say that Bruckheimer’s political affiliations are chiefly motivated by fiscal concerns rather than idealism or staunch beliefs. He makes violent movies because audiences like violent movies (although, notably in the last decade, he has veered towards fantasy and adventure fare). He may well feel that American might is right, but most of his movies aren’t militaristic (if Top Gun 2 gets produced soon, it will be his first in the genre for more than a decade). And he’s not so entrenched that card-carrying Hollywood liberals refuse to work with him (even if he were, he pays well). None of which should be interpreted as a defence of the guy (but you can mark me as something of an apologist in so far as I’m presenting a case for a movie I like, no matter who may be behind it). Rather it’s to suggest that his pictures aren’t necessarily limited to being just one thing. Indeed, a few of them are actually pretty good!


As noted, Enemy was first mooted in 1991 and it took Bruckheimer most of the next seven years to bring it to the screen.  The credited writer is David Marconi, which belies a much more involved scripting process. Whatever the ins and outs of arbitration, Marconi’s script (his only other significant claim is a story credit on Die Hard 4.0/Live Free and Die Hard) also received contributions/doctoring from Aaron Sorkin, Henry Bean and Tony Gilroy, to the extent that all were credited on early promotional material. That’s an interesting collection of writer talents right there. Bean’s past work included “dark side” cop movies-with-a-conscience Internal Affairs and Deep Cover. He would later co-write and direct one of Ryan Gosling’s break out roles in The Believer, concerning a Jewish man whose self-loathing leads to him join the KKK. Unfortunately for Bean, he’s also credited on Basic Instinct 2. Tony Gilroy has made his name with spy and surveillance fare; he’s credited on all the Bourne movies (including the post-Damon and Greengrass The Bourne Legacy, which may indicate a certain level of fractiousness between them), and wrote and directed the excellent corporate intrigue thriller Michael Clayton.


Then there’s Sorkin, whose TV series The West Wing revealed that the White House is populated by only the most well-meaning so-and-sos; all of them brimming with extraordinary moral fibre. Reel Power gives the original screenplay of Sorkin’s Charlie Wilson’s War credit for touching on certain unvarnished truths that ended up on the cutting room floor, but criticises its failure to call out the US for provoking the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the first place. Sorkin was uncredited for his work on another political movie released in 1998, Warren Beatty’s scathing and frequently very funny Bulworth. According to credited co-writer Jeremy Pikser (in Peter Biskind’s biography of Beatty, Star) 90% of Sorkin’s script (itself a rewrite) was thrown out. As Biskind puts it, Sorkin had a “sunny, wish-fulfillment take on American politics that was almost comically at odds with the reality”. Which sounds a little bit like the coming-up-roses conclusion to Enemy. While Wikipedia has it that Sorkin rewrote some of Smith’s scenes, it appears that he actually did a full two-week polish on Marconi’s script which then went to Gilroy and Bean as script doctors. Director Scott was on the quest for improved characterisation, which had served him well after being bitten by the Tarantino bug (Enemy’s shoot-out finale is a near restaging of the one in True Romance, complete with bystander hero and Tom Sizemore).


Marconi, recently interviewed regarding the movie, said he was inspired by James Bamber’s book on the NSA, The Puzzle Palace (“It was a massive eye opener. Anyone who was in any way paying attention to this stuff knew that the NSA was a big vacuum cleaner and that they were storing everything. This has been going on since World War II”) Marconi notes that Oliver Stone was interested in directing, and opines that Scott made it “much more entertainment fare”. It’s surely a valid criticism, but the corollary to that is Stone might just have ended up bludgeoning the audience, certainly given the U-Turn mode he was in at the time. Marconi also addresses the question of the acceptance of surveillance state (“Something that Orwell never figured out in 1984 is that people would embrace the idea of Big Brother if there’s a game attached to it, or if it’s convenient”).


Despite their successful history together (four movies, the most recent of which was Crimson Tide), Bruckheimer had his work cut out getting Scott to sign on. Once he finally secured the director, there were further difficulties persuading Hackman to take the supporting role of Brill (the ex-NSA operative loosely based on Hackman’s character in The Candidate). It didn’t end there. Disney Chairman Joe Roth also didn’t want to know at first. But Smith, still mainly known as a comedy star at that point, agreed because it gave him the chance to work with Hackman. It was a part earmarked for Tom Cruise (the delays with Eyes Wide Shut nixed that but who knows if Cruise would have definitely gone for it, what with his plates-in-the-air approach). 


Congressman Hammersley: Did you read the Post? This bill is not the first step to the surveillance society. It is the surveillance society.

Marconi and Scott set out their stall from the first scene (one suspects name checking The Washington Post was an intentional nod to the paper that exposed Watergate; it can’t be a coincidence that Jason Robards won an Oscar for playing the paper’s editor Ben Bradlee). Robards’ Congressman refuses to support Jon Voight’s NSA Deputy Director Thomas Reynolds and his Telecommunications and Privacy Act (“Invasion of Privacy is more like it”) and receives a lethal injection for his troubles. Unbeknownst to Reynolds and his team, their actions have been recorded by a wildlife researcher’s video camera (to catch “the migratory patterns of Canadian geese. Or lack thereof”; oh, the irony!) The movie establishes that the bill is not granting the NSA new powers. It has these powers already; all the bill is doing is legitimising them (and the net they are able to/already cover). The current conversation post-Snowden is partly about whether the surveillance undertaken is legal under The Patriot Act (or does it violate the Constitution; does The Patriot Act violate the Constitution?) Many people expressed understandable concerns over the scope of The Patriot Act, but it bulldozered it’s way through Congress on the back of post-9/11 hysteria.


Some conspiracists (or, alternatively, synchronicity-spotters) have noted the Reynolds’ birthdate is 9/11/40; it appears this was a conscious reference by the filmmakers to the first remote operation of a computer (over a phone line). In synchronicitous terms, the date does serve to underline that the rhetoric used by Reynolds to justify his actions is exactly the same as is currently being used by defenders of mass-spying. Reynolds informs us that the US is the richest, most powerful, most hated nation on Earth. It is at war 24 hours a day.

ReynoldsDo I have to itemise the number of American lives we’ve saved in the last 12 months alone with the judicious use of intelligence surveillance?


The movie was conceived in a North by Northwest fashion, such that lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Smith) is completely out of his depth at the time he comes under suspicion (he bumps into the Jason Lee’s fleeing wildlife researcher, who conceals his device in Dean’s bag). As such, Marconi might be accused of laying it on a bit thick by having Dean’s wife Carla (Regina King) ranting at the television about the end of personal privacy when we first see her (what are the chances, eh?) Congressman Sam Albert (Stuart Wilson) is on TV speaking in favour of the bill. Very presciently, he argues, “When buildings start blowing up, people’s priorities begin to change”.


It’s left to Brill, the man who was once on the inside (a communications analyst; if The Conversation is anything to go by, a much more sober version of the consequence-free geeks who see their job as little more than a game), to spell it all out. He tells Dean that “The government’s been in bed with the entire telecommunications industry since the ‘40s”. They have infected everything; our bank statements, computer files, email, they listen to our phone calls. Brill provides a potted summary of the then state of affairs; there are 18 acres of mainframe computers underground at Fort Mead; key words in conversation set off red flags for analysis “and that was 20 years ago”; there are over 100 spy satellites looking down, ready to snap information out of the air (without the need for a wire tap). Brill also sells the lie that he was involved in a nostalgic past where motives were truer (“We never had to deal with domestic. For us it was always war”) but there is an essential truth to his assessment the creature’s tentacles have turned inwards, ensnaring those it once purported to protect.


The idea that the movie concludes on a point of safety for all is an interesting one, as it only really does so for Dean and his family. This is a status quo that enables the pre-existing surveillance cited by Brill to continue. And realistically, it can be the only conclusion to the current conversation; laws may be changed and avowals made, but does anyone truly believe that the genie can be put back in the bottle? Particularly when institutions with command over the genie are, as a matter of course, consummately impenetrable.


Enemy interrogates the oft-used argument that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide. In Dean’s case, everything is fair game (past transgressions are top of the list) and, where there is no evidence of wrongdoing, slurs are more than enough to presume guilt (the “no smoke without fire” assumption). The ease with which his life is unspooled over the course of a day, based on the reasoning that he may have be connected to the missing assassination footage, is masterfully played out. 


It’s not just the script beats (NSA techies deducing Dean’s relationship with Lisa Bonet’s Rachel Banks from account payments, the cancellation of his credit cards, his wife’s assumption that he’s still having an affair with his Rachel – to be fair, that’s an entirely reasonable assumption as ‘er indoors can’t compete with Bonet – and his law firm’s hasty conclusion that his affairs are dirty) but the technical virtuosity with which Scott renders them. This might be the ultimate Tony Scott picture, the perfect marriage of his hyperactive editing style with material (I’m not saying its his best, although it’s certainly Top Three). He uses every element at his disposal to oil the wheels of pursuit, from the satellites zooming above the Earth (a marvellous visual, punctuated by the almost musical sound of Morse Code), to the overhead shots suggesting satellite footage. In addition, there’s a continuous cutting between different mediums, be they close circuit cameras or monitor screens. The picture is a visual feast.


Reynolds: Privacy’s been dead for 30 years because we can’t risk it.

If Dean’s life doesn’t begin to fall apart until about 40 minutes in, the picture doesn’t suffer from a slow build up. Marconi puts all the necessary pieces in place in order to pay them off later. Some of these work well, some less so. There’s no getting around the fact that it makes no sense for Paulie Pintero (Sizemore) to give Dean a week to reveal who made the incriminating tape that could send him back to jail; why doesn’t Pintero just torture the name out of Dean there and then (one refreshing thing about this movie is that, even though he waves a gun about, Smith’s character isn’t at all macho; there’s no way he’s going to stand up to being brutalised)? If that’s expedient, the device of the conflicting agendas of the different agencies is rather neat. It’s established that Pintero is under surveillance by the FBI, something that Dean is able to use his advantage come the climax (with a strong pinch of movie luck).


Scott delivers a number of gripping chase sequences, beginning with the pursuit of Jason Lee (“Target is… down. Target is down, permanently”), but he takes the time to show us Dean’s environment. First, the house call by Krug (Jake Busey) and Jones (Scott Caan) where we see Dean does have a basic level of savvy in how to deal with officialdom; it’s part and parcel of his legal background. When they ask if they can search the house, he replies “I don’t think so, not without a warrant”. Scott maintains a constant back-and-forth between the watched and the watchers. To reference True Romance again, it surely can’t be a coincidence that (frequently very funny) surveillance patter can be found in both movies. Here. Seth Green’s Selby (one of a number of uncredited performances) gives Dean the accolade “Oh, this guy’s good”.


But, when the escalation comes, there is a swift transition from being tracked to being pursued. The subsequent break-in (“Jones… painted… the dog!”), in which a stolen blender becomes a recurring gag (“You want a blend?”) finds the NSA team using their technology for all its worth (the 3D imaging of Dean’s shopping bag) but unable to think laterally (Dean doesn’t have the recording because his son has swiped it). It’s another clever device, misdirection for Dean if not the audience, that he thinks Pintero is behind the newspaper headlines (“Blake attorney said to be under FBI investigation”) and it leads to a second meeting with the lovely Rachel.


This is Scott’s first clear homage to The Conversation, although his flashy adrenalised surveillance in the park (“If we don’t have line of sight we cant hear what they say”) bears as much real resemblance to that movie as Brian De Palma’s station shootout in The Untouchables does to its inspiration, the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. It’s representative of Enemy of the State that a scene central to The Conversation (as with De Palma’s Blow Up, it will be played and replayed later to attempt to divine greater meaning) becomes just one of many moments. Scott is always racing ahead.


Brill: It means the NSA can read the time off your fucking wristwatch.

Which is why, say, Gabriel Byrne can show up for just a couple of scenes as the fake Brill met by Dean. Perhaps Robards’ one scene deal should have forewarned us of the movie’s surfeit of name actors appearing in little more than a series of extended cameos, but it still makes the viewing experience something of a treasure trove. Nevertheless, the picture needs someone of Hackman’s stature to glue it all together. This was Smith in pre-Ali mode and, fine as he is in a dramatic role, he said he found it difficult to supress his comedic instincts. That doesn’t stop him from completely rising to the challenge, holding his own opposite Hackman. There’s nothing the latter does here that he couldn’t do in his sleep, but he does it to perfection. Their first encounter, as they proceed from lift to rooftop while Brill disposes of a number of tracers planted on Dean, is a rousing sequence; the guy in the know who can outsmart the smartest (“He’s getting help, boys. He’s getting help”) and is fully conversant with their ways (“He never looks up”).


Jamie: Either he just committed suicide…
Selby: Or learned to fly.

Perhaps one of the reasons Enemy of the State doesn’t invite respect in the manner of its ‘70s antecedents is that it is such a buoyant, upbeat affair. Sure, it touches on marital infidelity and Rachel meets an unpleasant end (but that’s okay, she poisoned their marriage!), but there’s an emphatic swing towards the victims’ retaliation. In The Parallax View, Beatty was the permanent dupe. In Three Days of the Condor, Redford was more fortunate than clever. Smith’s Dean has the benefit of an ex-inside man. Brill leaves their first meeting with the gesture “You live another day, I’ll be very impressed” but Dean displays, in less debonair fashion to Cary Grant in North By Northwest perhaps, the familiar mettle of the little man who emerges triumphant. He eludes his pursuers (“You’re transmitting. Get rid of your clothes”) by starting a fire, escapes an ambulance and runs headlong into a traffic-filled tunnel (one of Scott’s less likely choices is asking the guy Dean steals clothes from to sit patiently in a bathrobe waiting for the NSA guys to discover him).


Brill: I blew up the building.
Dean: Why?
Brill: Because you made a phone call.

When Brill and Dean reencounter each other, the script occasionally falls into unnecessary hyperbole as Smith rails against his bad luck (“This is my life I worked hard for it I want it back!”; spoken like a true, prioritised Republican), but mostly this is held in check by Scott’s flair for facilitating a heady pace without sacrificing copious exposition (we’ve seen something of this approach before in Stone’s JFK, but here there’s an added urgency here). Brill’s chicken coop home (“Copper mesh keeps radio signals out”) meets with an untimely end because Dean doesn’t follow his instructions to the letter; he foolishly uses a payphone and the NSA is listening in. Scott even throws in a pet to give the escape an added frisson (will Will save the cat and get out in time?) Smith’s character doesn’t seem entirely keen on either of the pets in the movie (his wife’s dog being the other), but I’m not sure I’d go as far as attributing any subtext to this.


Brill: I loved the agency I lived the work.

Brill’s backstory is that he vanished from the Agency in 1980, having last been active in Iran in ’78. After the fall of the Shah, the NSA conveniently forgot he existed. His partner didn’t make it out, so Brill took care of his daughter (Rachel). Brill explains that the treatment Dean has received is just the way it is (“If you’re a murder suspect you’re easier to find”); additionally, it makes it easier to discredit him if he ever goes public. The turnaround in their fortunes might legitimately be viewed as unlikely wish fulfillment, but I don’t think that makes the picture any less effective in presenting its ideas. On the contrary, one might argue that by being accessible it gets them out to a wider audience than it otherwise would.


The flipside of this is that the movie implies "bad" technology is great if you're a good guy and use if to just ends. Brill summons the spirit of the Vietcong when he explains how they will overcome their adversaries (“Well, if they’re big and you’re small, then you’re mobile and they’re slow. You’re hidden and they’re exposed”) and puts this into effect by using the NSA’s own tracers to bug Congressman Albert’s hotel room (he’s having an affair). The “How do you like it?” turning of the tables may be a little on-the-nose, as an example of convenient Hollywood plotting, but it’s consistent with the key position of the script – that scrutiny of every action can be good for no one. Come the climax, Albert is on TV having reappraised his position, asking where do you “draw the line between the protection of national security and the protection of civil liberties, particularly the sanctity of my home. You’ve got no right to come into my home”.


The triumph of the good guys is a qualified victory at best. The only one who comes out thoroughly condemned is Reynolds. The deniability of the operatives is all too believable; we note from the beginning that their actions are authorised as a  training op” and they hold this line into the later interrogations (“I thought it was a STO… Standard Training Op”) We are told that the privacy bill is only dead in its current form but is still very much alive (indeed… ) Meanwhile, it appears that Dean (and family) have gone along with a cover-up (“Mob boss implicated in Rachel Banks killing”). Beatty or Redford never would have countenanced such a thing. Dean has got the all-important life he worked so hard for back, and it appears that his scruples only extend so far. This is a nice touch, one that doesn’t entirely register on first viewing and gives the sweetened pill a slightly bitter aftertaste.


Credit is due also for the consistency of having a physically (if not mentally) passive hero involved in the climactic shoot-out. Particularly for a Bruckheimer film, hiding the hero under a table just isn’t the usual approach. If some of the details of this set up are lumpy, ultimately the dovetailing of agendas and misunderstandings is very satisfying. Reynolds and Pintero are at complete cross-purposes regarding the tape (it’s also a nice touch that the tape is destroyed earlier in the movie; even if Dean wished to change the status quo he has no evidence to do so, another indication that the movie isn’t really offering such a clean cut victory as first appears). Then FBI surveillance thread kicks in, urgently so when a bloodied Brill steps out to take some fresh air and the Feds see his policeman’s uniform.


Smith has been disappointingly circumspect with his roles since. It’s ironic that one of the few movies he has done with any substance should have been predicated on working with an actor rather than the material. It’s not as if he’s alone in his status as a big star who thinks primarily in terms of box office receipts. Probably as early as the choice to make Men in Black II something had gone awry. It’s a shame, as he has enormous natural charisma on his side to support flirtations with challenging subject matter. On the occasions he has attempted something different (Seven Pounds) the result has been unmitigated twaddle. Hence, Men in Black 3. In Enemy, he steers the turns between humour and drama effortlessly. I’m not sure he fully sells Dean as a hotshot lawyer, but in every other respect he’s sure of himself. There’s his good-natured embarrassment buying lingerie for his wife, his easy-going dismissal of her concerns over who decides who eavesdrops on whom (“I think you should”), and his affection for her relatives (“And I love your family… except for your dad”) As noted, he holds his own in his shared scenes, and he’s with sparring with some of the greats.


Hackman had only five or six years of roles left until his retirement, many of which were forgettable (he’s great in both Heist and The Royal Tennenbaums, however). This feels, rightly, like classic Hackman. As for the rest of the cast, Voight had been capitalising on a regalvanised return to the big screen since Heat three years before. Bonet had been away concentrating on her family, and would disappear again soon after, but it’s good to see her however briefly. 


The NSA guys were all played by up and coming actors on the verge of going on to bigger things; Barry Pepper, Scott Caan, Jake Busey, Jamie Kennedy, Jack Black (typically uncouth, and expressing an obsession with the Deans’ nanny). The back and forth between ”Technical Support” (the IT geeks) and the Ops guys (“You can tell by their haircuts”) is very funny, but doesn’t undercut the tension; as noted it’s an effective tool for showing none of this is real to them, and that they have no interest in thinking through the consequences of what they do for a living.


Then there’s Byrne. And Ian Hart (bills to pay, I’m guessing). Anna Gunn (later of Breaking Bad), Grant Heslov (later of George Clooney pal; I wonder if his character’s alternative newspaper The Awful Truth is inspired by the Terry-Thomas film?) and Ivana Milicevic (currently making a splash in Banshee). Jason Lee got a role based on Bruckheimer being a fan of Chasing Amy, James Le Gros plays Smith’s lawyer buddy and Philip Baker Hall (uncredited) is one of the law firm’s partners. Then there’s Robards (uncredited) and a suitably threatening Sizemore (also uncredited).


It shouldn’t be a surprise that Enemy is super stylish and super glossy; that’s Tony Scott all over. But his work in the subsequent decade would see him increasingly opt for a dirtied up, hyperreal approach. This was his first time working with cinematographer Daniel Mindel, who has since become J J Abrams DP of choice (the poor chap, accommodating all those lens flares). Editor Chris Lebenzon’s relationship with Scott dated back to Top Gun and concluded with the director’s final film Unstoppable. I think this might be their best collaboration. There can be a sense with Scott movies, and with those influenced by him, of a “The more cuts the better” ethic, but in a picture all about multiple perspectives this seems entirely appropriate.


The arresting main titles come from Garson Yu (recent memorable work includes Life of Pi) while the music is a combined effort from Harry Gregson-Williams and Trevor Rabin; it’s as alternately as gripping and overblown as you’d expect from a Bruckheimer score (Rabin previously contributed to the ridiculous Con Air soundtrack, if that’s any indication). Benjamin Fernandez predictably designs the NSA interiors with huge walls of TV monitors, but it has to be said it does the trick visually. There’s a Director’s Cut of the movie, but it’s one that’s fairly inessential; I did watch it a few years back but it left little impression (the current Blu-ray release reverts to including this material as deleted scenes).


Reynolds: I hate doing this at Christmas.

Did I mention Enemy of the State is set at Christmas? It’s hardly integral to the plot (except that it gives Dean’s son added impetus for laying his hands on the recording, snooping for presents), but it does find Bruckheimer entering the territory of competing action movie producer Joel Silver. Silver’s Lethal Weapon and Die Hard were both set at yuletide, although it is arguably only a memorable plot feature of the latter (“Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho”).


It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.

It might be argued that Enemy of the State loses points for being a slam-bang action take on the conspiracy movie. If it left its brain at the door as a consequence of adopting that approach, I might agree. It may not exude the nihilistic despair of The Parallax View, or draw breath long enough to create the sense of isolation seen in Three Days of the Condor, but its pace feels perfectly in tune with the hi-tech world 20 years hence from those pictures (I very much doubt the current wave of validation Enemy is receiving will be repeated by Eagle Eye in another 10 years). Just because Enemy of the State is great fun to watch doesn’t make it any less insightful than its forbears.


*****


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She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times.

The Owl Service
Episode Two
Huw tells the story of the Mabinogion (“Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times”). Roger takes on both an investigatory position and a reluctant one (he conceals Alison’s scratch with a plaster, perhaps embarrassed by the carnal passions it implies). And no one seems all that concerned about the vanishing plate designs (although the others think Alison must have done it).

The tensions between the trio have started to mount up. Most effective is the scene where Gwyn confronts Alison. Clad in a bikini, she lies on a sun lounger reading the Mabinogion. As Gwyn angrily sends the book flying, we see quick cuts of her painted face (“You shouldn’t have done that!”) and the sound of fluttering pages/birds as he flees, apparently pursued by something. And then they make up, as if all is fine and it was just a lover’s tiff. Now Roger, wearing, Alison’s sunglasses and with an impassive expression suggesting subdued jealousy, observes them. Roger gets many of the …