Home Invasion

He's not in Kansas anymore: Will Smith in Enemy of the State

Enemy of the State
area theaters

Call Enemy of the State the Wizard of Oz of 1998. Sure, producer Jerry Bruckheimer's high-tech spy thriller broaches such big, bad things as state power, political conspiracy, and surveillance intelligence--but what's really at stake is the future of domesticity. Amid all its 21st-century trappings, Enemy of the State holds tight to an old-fashioned belief: that in a confusing, heartless world, there's no place like home.

À la Dorothy in Oz, fast-track attorney Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) gets sucked out of his happy home and hurled into a scary new world peopled by government agents, spy satellites, laptops, transmitters, and surveillance cameras--all as a result of a chance encounter with an old college buddy in a lingerie shop. Victoria's secrets are now state secrets, and Dean must find his way home with the help of a mysterious underground operative and techno-wizard known as Brill (Gene Hackman). Here, Hackman basically reprises his role as the reclusive wiretapping expert in Francis Ford Coppola's definitive surveillance flick, The Conversation. And director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide) duplicates Coppola's knack for timing: Where The Conversation (1974) tapped into Watergate news, Enemy of the State overlaps rather conveniently with another White House scandal.

Of course, as producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Beverly Hills Cop, Armageddon) breathlessly explains in the press kit, the scope of "institutionalized information gathering" has expanded a bit since Nixon. "With today's technology anything is possible and everything is probable," Bruckheimer (over)states; consequently, this latest venture revels in the supposedly infinite visual possibilities of the surveillance society. Scott employs such tricks as aerial time-lapse shots and speedy montages of security-cam footage, but such technical virtuosity functions mainly as a suturing device to hold together an overwhelmingly traditional plot. And while Scott's new top guns are a crew of hip techno-weenies who taunt some buffed and coiffed leftovers from the '80s, none of these military models can hold a candle to the heroic family man.

So is there any chance the '90s' sci-fi mantra might be "Don't phone home"? Hardly. Aside from all the telecommunication, Enemy of the State thanks God for pets, nannies, Christmas, and domestic appliances, while disparaging things like couples' separate bank accounts and the technologies (phones, faxes, e-mail) that penetrate and possibly infect the nuclear family. So it follows that all of the good guys here have loyal pets--latter-day Totos, including a golden retriever named Bob and an unusually docile cat named Baby--and that the ultimate sign of Dean's victimization occurs when agents spray-paint his dog. Similarly, our hero's repeatedly invoked quest to find his stolen blender symbolizes his drive to restore domestic order.

Granted, this fantasy has been tweaked ever so slightly for our enlightened era, as Dean's wife Carla (Regina King) is a politically astute lawyer who wears "the pants in the house" (according to the press kit). The filmmakers might even admit that marriage takes work, since the Deans have successfully assuaged domestic discord with the help of counseling. But hubby's main motivation still comes from fatherhood, and he refuses to relinquish this primal identity for another, insisting, "I grew up without a father. I will not allow that to happen to my son." And Carla collaborates in this domestic bunker mentality even when she draws the line: "They're not chasing me out of my house. I picked those drapes!"

So while Enemy of the State might flirt with virtual panopticon anxiety--"The only privacy left is the inside of your head," threatens Jon Voight's bad politician--it relies on old moral formulas about the fount of character. If, as the politician strategizes, "credibility is the only kind of currency that's worth anything on this playing field," and credibility is as open to manipulation as financial credit, then all the more reason to buttress the hearthstone as the most stable source of identity. Larry King delivers the movie's final, resounding lines: "What about the sanctity of the home? You've got no right to come into my home."

And that's not such an ultramodern notion. Dorothy's Technicolor Oz here gives way to the action hero's technocratic nightmare, where the ultimate escapist fantasies warn us right back to the farm in Kansas--or onto the living-room couch. If the possibilities of technology, including the cinema, are so infinite, then why are we stuck with such closed-circuit imagination?

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