Government surveillance is always fertile narrative territory. From tight-knit chamber thrillers to elaborate conspiracy theories, storytellers have always found something compelling about not knowing the full scope of what one’s government might know — or possibly suspect — about you. And audiences are typically quick to be drawn in. In our post-9/11 world, one that’s filled with evolving new technology and ever-looser regulations on moderating our data, internet history, phone history, or what-have-you, there’s always something deeply chilling about knowing what you always suspected might be true. That you’re not simply paranoid. That someone might be listening in. Watching you. Studying you. Maybe even assuming the worst of you. It’s obviously scary stuff, and it’s an easy source for some investing drama. Particularly, or perhaps especially, in documentaries.
That’s my tinfoil hat way of saying that Enemies of the State, from director Sonia Kennebeck (National Bird), doesn’t need to do too much to make audiences feel an unnerving sense of dread, particularly over the dangers of government surveillance in our current technological era. We, the people, are growing ever more aware of the uncovered truths in an age of Wikileaks and other online methods of taking off masks and discovering previously undisclosed secrets. But ironically enough, in an age where information can often be found at the click of the button, what is actually true and what is being constructed, even by our government, can become foggy in an age of post-truth and “fake news.” Are we sometimes too quick to assume what is true and what is fabricated? Are government figures merely looking out for their own interests, or do they have more specific agendas? At a time when we know more about the operations of the U.S. government than ever, we might have even more questions than before regarding their activities and what they seek to find in American homes.
Enemies of the State tells the story of Matthew DeHart, an Air National Guard veteran and online hacker involved with online whistleblowers like Anonymous, who receives intense scrutiny from federal investigators. As the federal government starts to investigate allegations of child pornography against DeHart, are we to believe that there’s some truth to their searches, or are they deliberately trying to silence someone who might know and say too much to the American people?
The film has the benefit of an investing story, real-world stakes, and key subjects recounting these intensely intriguing events. We’re primarily shown us the perspective of DeHart’s adoring parents, who go to great lengths — including fleeing the country — to protect their son. Therefore, we’re often led to believe their point-of-view. But when we start to hear from various other sources, including FBI agents, we’re given a murkier picture of what might be real and what might be fictionalized in DeHart’s publicized image.
As a documentary, Enemies of the States is more interested in building up the suspense than giving us definitive answers. Most likely because they don’t exactly know the full truth of DeHart’s story. With the subject unwilling or unable to provide his side, we’re only left with the people who surround him to tell their conflicting reports. This style is both investing and frustrating in equal measures. Without an intentionally clear view of what happened, it’s hard to know how much the filmmakers believe their subjects and how much they’re just interested in what they have to say — whether or not it may or may not be factual to DeHart’s story. Especially by the film’s final 10-15 minutes, this online story has gotten so caught up in its own web that it can feel like the storytellers don’t really know what they’re ultimately trying to say about DeHart. At least, not in full. Sometimes, this ambiguity plays into the movie’s favor. Other times, it prevents it from fully captivating us, as we’re left too much at a distance from each person in this extensive recounting. The deliberately cold, calculating presentation of the film is well-executed, but it can prevent us from being too emotionally involved with what’s being explored and how we’re supposed to feel in full.
As a tale of paranoia and misdirection, Enemies of the State is largely successful. It’s well-edited, detail-orientated, and it never slows down. If this movie gets picked up by HBO Films, for instance, it’ll probably find an invested audience, notably in this age of true crime obsessions. But there is also something to be said about how one-note this film can be. While the story itself remains provocative and unsettling throughout, the filmmaking itself doesn’t always captivate quite so readily. While Kennebeck’s direction is slick and sometimes stylish in its approach, the vigorously dour, viciously straight-faced movie is so preoccupied with all its different angles that its storytelling can become a bit rigid and sterilized throughout this process.
Kennebeck’s style here is intentionally evocative of Errol Morris, who serves as an executive producer, even down to heavy-handed dramatizations and a moody score. While this story is a very serious one, the attempt to copy Morris’ style so grimly and bleakly can grow tiresome. It is so visual-orientated and so familiar in its approach that it leaves little room for creative freedom or its own filmmaking personality. Kennebeck is still early in her filmmaking career, so perhaps she’ll find this individuality in her later work. But here, it can be hard not to think about what Morris would’ve done with the material. It’s so true to his format that it feels like he half-directed it already. Again, it’s a well-mounted movie by-and-large, but in a film where we’re trying to figure out who exactly DeHart is as a person (is he a child pornographer trying to clear his name or a man being hunted down by his own government? Both? Neither?), it’s perhaps a little ironic that Kennebeck’s film doesn’t figure out what to make of itself, either.
Nevertheless, Enemies of the State is a sharp, curious, and consistently unsettling documentary that’s unafraid to explore the darker truths of our secretive government and the ordinary (or maybe not-so-ordinary) figures who may be caught in its deceit. The documentary is very good at reminding you that, even in our age of free-flowing information, answers don’t come easily, and they don’t come without sacrifices, either. We might not know the full truth of Matthew DeHart, but we do know there are always things the government doesn’t want us to know. And they’ll go to great lengths to keep it that way. They’re always watching, whether you know it or not.