Welcome To Hollywood...May We Take Your Order?
By James DiGiovanna
IN 1974, FRANCIS Ford Coppola became the only person ever to direct two movies that were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in the same year. The one that won was Godfather II, which was perhaps the only sequel that was better than the original, and is considered one of the finest American films of all time. The other one is not as widely remembered, but was an incredibly brilliant and beautifully photographed film that was in many respects too disturbing and uncomfortable for even the cinematic mood of that age.
That film was The Conversation, a dark and depressing look at the life of Harry Caul, a surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman, in the what would turn out to be the best performance of his career. Claustrophobic and cluttered rooms, gray skies, muddy colors and Hackman's grimy, see-through plastic raincoat colored the photography a uniform shade of dingy. Everything about Caul's life raised questions about observation, loneliness, detachment and the impossibility of connection in a world where everything is subject to recording and replay. Without ever resorting to speech-making, the dialogue evoked a series of difficult issues by virtue of what was not said, what remained elided and avoided. The ending is both ambiguous and extremely powerful; without tying up all the loose ends, it clearly established a mood and character.
That was the 1970s, when filmmakers were allowed to trust in the intelligence of the American audience. Back in those days, when a film showed a character like Harry Caul whose life was falling apart, no test audience complained and forced the producers to shoot a happy, deus-ex-machina ending where everything was set right.
In Enemy of the State, Hackman reprises the Harry Caul role, playing surveillance expert "Brill," who works in an exact replica of Harry Caul's wire-enclosed, warehouse office. Only, this time around he's saddled with updated technology, Will Smith's squeaky-clean everyman for company, and one of the worst screenplays ever shat out of the bunghole that is Hollywood.
Designed for a crapulent audience of corpulent pleasure seekers, Enemy of The State begins and ends with Will Smith's perfect, fairy-tale suburban life. Hackman's character, whose lonely, outcast status makes him far too unsettling for center stage, doesn't appear until a third of the way through the film, well after the basic plot has been established by a series of expository speeches and chase scenes.
The worst part of Enemy is the way it tries to address issues. The story devolves around a government plot to discredit and destroy the life of labor lawyer Robert Dean (Will Smith), and the means they use for this are an excessive number of hidden cameras and microphones that litter the 7-11's and Motel 6's of the world. Instead of allowing this to speak for itself, Dean's wife presents a long diatribe against the surveillance society, which comes across as something plagiarized from a teen-age Libertarian's Internet rant-page. This kind of thing repeats throughout the film: Whenever an issue is addressed, all natural dialogue and action ceases for an embarrassingly adolescent speech. Oddly, even the attempts at naturalistic dialogue repeat themselves; as though unable to think up more than 30 minutes' worth of verbal interaction, writer David Marconi on two occasions recycles script sequences from earlier in the film.
Even worse than the repetition and speech-making are the attempts to explain back-story: The wife of the NSA agent who's out to get Dean speaks only in exposition. While her husband, played by Jon Voight in his new standard role as Big Government Villain, worries about his murderous plot to get the Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act to pass, she says, "You should have made deputy director years ago, but if this bill passes I'm sure you'll be promoted immediately." A rather odd statement to come out of the blue, she apparently is so embarrassed by it that she then says nothing for 45 minutes, until the need for further exposition arises.
Of course, most people don't watch action films for their incisive political commentary or compelling and naturalistic dialogue, but rather to see people blow up real good. Lots of stuff definitely blows up here, and the blowing up is nicely photographed. When people are running, shooting or dying, the movie moves along at a reasonable clip, though there are so many credibility-stretching moments in the story that it's hard to care about the outcome of any given sequence: When virtually anything can happen, no situation seems terribly dangerous. For example, right after brutally killing a man suspected of having a videotape that implicates them in a murder, two NSA agents show up at Will Smith's house looking for a copy of said tape. When they ask politely if they might search his house, he tells them he won't allow that without a warrant, and so...they leave. Because, I assume, they must have had a warrant to kill the last guy, and wouldn't want to do anything illegal.
A series of highly unlikely escapes and rescues then occurs, as various government types put on more and more expensive suits in their pursuit of evil. Along the way, delightfully retro stereotypes of Asians, Mexicans and Italians act goofy, clean houses and commit organized crimes, respectively.
It's all a far cry from the film it salutes, The Conversation, which induces you to think on the plot for days and perhaps weeks after seeing it. The Conversation's ending is designed to evoke an open response that calls you back into the ideas and images of the film. Enemy of the State is just the opposite; it's feel-good ending negates every lame attempt at raising issues, and leaves the audience with a blank feeling of satiety, like eating a big, starchy and tasteless meal at Denny's. It fills you up, but it's interchangeable with a meal from Marie Callender's, IHOP or Coco's, and it's only mildly lasting effects quickly pass through you and are flushed away without regret.
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