THE STORY – An average American family becomes entangled in a bizarre web of espionage and corporate secrets when the U.S. government targets the family’s hacker son.
THE CAST – Joel Widman, Stuart Anderson & Nemo Baletic
THE TEAM – Sonia Kennebeck (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes
By Josh Parham
Documentaries, like any medium in cinema, can serve a multitude of functions. While foundations in presenting fact-based information push one to consider them more educational, they still have to create engaging stories that follow individuals or narratives that one can find emotional investment. However, like the fictionalized counterparts, some efforts do not have a clean commentary to track. Some documentaries can haze the perspective and alter the storytelling to provoke a more vigorous debate and lead its audience to form their own conclusions. This can result in some brilliant films. In the case of “Enemies of the State,” however, the attempt to lean in on ambiguity only muddies the true intentions of telling a harrowing yet slightly hollow tale of shadowy government corruption.
The film tracks the events surrounding Matt Dehart and his entanglement on the receiving end of the U.S. government’s wrath. Beginning about a decade ago, Dehart became interested in computer hacking and eventually crossed paths with internet activists known for supplying classified information to sites like Wikileaks. One day, he comes across extremely sensitive information, which he claims has put him in the crosshairs of the F.B.I. With the aid of his parents, he flees to Canada and seeks political asylum, recounting accusations of torture and harassment at the hands of federal agents. As the layers of this case get peeled back, more revelations question what is to be actually believed and what those consequences ultimately mean.
There’s a good deal of mystery within this story that can be compelling. The inherently cinematic techniques employed by director Sonia Kennebeck make the untangling of this deceitful web a fascinating exploration. Sometimes these methods can prove more of a distraction, particularly in the stylized re-enactments that are numerous in nature. Still, the descent into this complicated exposure leaves one captivated by the new turns just around the corner that shine a light to even more enthralling discoveries.
However, there is another element at play that obscures the reception one might have toward this work. The information is doled out in ways that are meant to elicit curiosity and a level of suspense to see how the complexity evolves. While this tactic does provide the foundation for keeping one invested, it often disrupts the natural flow of the narrative. When vital clues to this mystery are revealed, it enlightens just as much as it frustrates. This speaks to the very nature of the film’s aims: wanting to fight for the pursuit of justice while also recognizing that the subject may not be entirely sympathetic. It’s an opaqueness the film wants its audience to decipher, but the picture feels too incomplete to indulge in that thesis truly.
Things are even more arduous when one considers the portrait being painted of Dehart himself. Nearly the entire perspective of the film comes from those in his closest orbit, and therefore are inherently sympathetic to his cause. While efforts are made to give a fuller picture, many presented arguments seem one-sided and imbalanced. Suspicion grows further when the potential bombshell discovery of state-held secrets is never validated. The charges against Dehart, which includes links to child pornography, bring serious question to his character. To be fair, there is an acknowledgment of these facts, and it is more evidence of the uncertainty the audience must sit with. However, the point of view is consistently presented in a grey area when it seems unwarranted based on what’s provided. This does create suspense in the moment, but the overall story is damaged by a bait-and-switch that was never truly earned.
There’s no denying that the premise of “Enemies of the State” is quite intriguing. The many layers it uncovers that lead deeper down the facets of conspiracy keeps one attentive, and the more epiphanies learned, the more one becomes entrenched in this enigma. Unfortunately, just how much of this mystery should be taken at face value is always questioned, and not all in ways meant to create a more nuanced argument. The structure struggles to have a natural rhythm and chooses to divulge pieces of information in ways that feel disingenuous. The endeavor to craft a balanced account is inconsistently displayed, and despite the handsome filmmaking, leaves one empty. One will probably be interested throughout, but there is an inescapable vacuum to its thematic inspection that leaves one yearning for more.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – There’s a captivating story about government corruption that’s filled with suspense and intrigue as the mystery gets further revealed. The filmmaking is cinematic and engaging.
THE BAD – A fundamental hollowness is at the center of a story that can feel disingenuous when it doles out information and masks the true intentions of the subjects. The natural flow of the storytelling often feels disrupted and imbalanced.