I have been very out there and vocal about my love for “The Conversation”, a film I have considered in my top 5 without wavering. That top 5 is, of course:
“Vertigo", “Chinatown", "Citizen Kane", "The Conversation" and "Barton Fink". What, you might ask, are the criteria to make it to such a lofty and exulted place as Wayne’s top 5 films of ALL TIME?
1) They must be entertaining as hell
2) They must not have any lagging or dull moments
3) They must deal with a subject that I find fascinating
4) There must be elements of humor, no matter how weighty the subject matter
5) They must have hit an emotional chord for me
6) They must have some very original stylistic and visual elements
7) They must have provided some kind of transformative moment for me
8) The performances and dialogue have to all be spot on…no crappy miscasting
9) The music must not overpower the film, or inappropriately work against it
10) There can be no moments of anachronism or other unbelievable elements that pull me out of the film
11) Apparently from the looks of the above list, no happy ending.
Three movies on the top 5 of the AFI Top 100 that wouldn’t cut it with the above list:
“Gone With The Wind” (#4)- There are entire swaths of this film that bore the crap out of me. Sorry, Lisa (my wife adores this film).
“Casablanca” (#2)- I love it, but let’s face it, the camera does next to nothing of interest in this movie. Some nice lighting, but that’s it.
“Lawrence of Arabia” (#5)- See “Gone With The Wind”.
The other two are “Citizen Kane”, which is on my list and “The Godfather” which comes in at about 9 or 10 on my Top 100. “Vertigo” is their #61, and neither “The Conversation” or “Barton Fink” made the AFI list at all.
Can I deal with this for a second? “Vertigo” is 61st? RUFKM? It’s behind “Dr. Zhivago” and “High Noon”? Sight and Sound has it at number one in THE WORLD! Have they even seen this film? Have you? If the answer is no, then stop reading this blog and go rent it RIGHT NOW.
Anyway, I can understand “Barton Fink” not making the list. There are elements in all of the Coen Brothers’ films that are not universally beloved, but boy oh boy do they speak to me! In fact, some of their lesser films are the ones I love best, in particular this one, “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Serious Man”. I think if you are a baby boomer (I am), Jewish (I am) and/or in the Arts/Entertainment field (I am) then these films really connect.
However, “The Conversation” having no place in the AFI Top 100 is a complete oversight. Coppola himself says it is his favorite, even more than either Godfathers or “Apocalypse Now”.
So why am I yammering on about “The Conversation”, you might ask (and aren’t you the inquisitive one today)? Because “Enemy of the State” is as close to a sequel as we are ever going to get. True, it is not directed or even produced by Francis Ford Coppola, but it does have Gene Hackman in basically the same role he played in “The Conversation”. Yes they changed his name, but there is no question we are dealing with the same subject matter, and an extrapolation of what might have happened to his character, Harry Call. Would it have been better if Coppola had helmed “Enemy of the State”? Maybe not; his efforts as a director since 1980 had fallen woefully short of his first decade, and maybe his spark was gone. Tony Scott would not have been my first or even 50th choice; in fact he made some of my least favorite movies, including “The Fan” and “Beverly Hills Cop II”. But he also directed this film and “True Romance” which I think is just about perfect.
My memory is that “Enemy of the State” was great: action packed with some amazing chase scenes, and it tackled a very important subject— the limits of Government surveillance. The film gained stature in my memory after the events of 9/11 and the subsequent passing of the Patriot Act. They tackled this issue before it was really huge. I like that! Let’s see if 13 years after 9/11 it has the same resonance.
“ I'm not gonna sit in congress and pass a law that lets the government point a camera and a microphone at anything they damn well please.” -Congressman Hammersley
An NSA bigwig (Jon Voight) needs the votes of a Congressman (Jason Robards) and his cronies to pass a bill that extends the rights of the Agency to use satellites for surveillance of average Americans. The Congressman refuses, remaining steadfast in his concern for the rights of individuals. The bigwig has his honchos kill the Congressman, and then make it look like a car accident caused by drug abuse. Ironically, an environmental group has a camera installed at the scene which captures the entire proceedings. When the environmental watchdog views the tape, he realizes that he has this evidence, but the NSA does too, and chases him. In the course of this chase, he drops a memory card with the video in the shopping bag of an unwitting lawyer (Will Smith), who then becomes pursued and persecuted himself by the NSA gang. His only help in this adventure is an off-the-grid ex-surveillance expert named either Brill or Edward Lyle (Gene Hackman) who is ambivalent about being drawn into this situation.
Was this ahead of its time? I’ll say! And even though it’s now 16 years old, much of the technology is pretty cool: the 3D simulators, the satellite imaging, the various types of bugging devices et al. It really doesn’t seem dated except for the computer screens and lack of smartphones.
Sadly, there are a bunch of elements that qualify for exclusion from number 10 on my must list above. That was the one that says you can’t have things in the film that are so inaccurate that they pull you out of it, saying to yourself “Wha? That shit ain’t right!”
Here’s what ain’t right: Little Italy in Baltimore of 1998 is definitely NOT Little Italy in New York of 1955. The differences? Italian Social Clubs, which were the center of Mafia life in New York, were prevalent in New York’s Little Italy of the ’40’s through ’70’s. Little Italy of Baltimore in 1998 had virtually nothing to do with the mob. It’s just a bunch of crappy Italian Restaurants with bad food and no parking. Nowadays there’s a garage or two, but the food still stinks. And there’s NO MOB at all. You know how I know this? If the mob was there, the food would be AWESOME. In fact, I doubt very much if Italians have anything at all to do with Baltimore’s Little Italy. I’m going on record as saying that they are Greeks. I love Greek food, but they have no idea how to make Italian food.
Robert Clayton Dean, the lawyer played by Will Smith, gets drawn into this situation not unlike the way Roger Thornhill from “North by Northwest” gets drawn into his…merely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here’s the thing; the NSA guys know he’s not involved in this conflict, that he’s merely a guy who got the video by happenstance, and yet they still find it necessary to trash his house, reputation, marriage and most importantly, credit rating. Instead of just bull-rushing him, why couldn’t they just say, “Hey man….that crazy dude we were chasing? He dropped something in your bag, and we need that shit. It’s for national security and whatnot”. I mean if it were me, I’d say, "yeah cool, what was it you were looking for?” End of problem. Basically, the whole film turns on a plot device that is more than a bit ridiculous. At least in “North By Northwest”, you can totally believe that James Mason and crew think Thornhill is lying, George Kaplan doesn’t really exist, but they don’t know that.
One other little item that breaks my 10th Commandment, aka -Thou shalt not cause the audience to say out loud the words “No fucking way!”.
The store in Dupont Circle where Dean is shopping when the Greenpeace guy drops the video in his bag is a Lingerie store; a store wherein all the shopping clerks are drop dead models wearing only the lingerie they sell. WHAT? In DC? First of all, the closest thing we have here to a “Lingerie Store” is Victoria’s Secret at the Pentagon Mall. The clerks there all look like Betty White. I say, “No fucking way!”.
But let’s get back to the theme, and what really is smart about “Enemy of the State”. The discussion that lingers about the NSA, The Patriot Act, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and our own personal safety at home is maybe one of the most important of the 21st Century. This is not the forum for me to expound on my feelings on this subject, but suffice to say that if you need to kill a Congressman to protect our people from terrorists, then there is a real priority issue here. How about we limit the availability of automatic weapons to Schizophrenics first? Make someone pass a Rorschach before they can buy a Kalishnikov.
In this film, there is a line spoken by Hackman that goes “Fort Meade has 18 acres of mainframe computers underground. You’re talking to your wife on the phone and you use the word “bomb”, “president” , “Allah”, any of a hundred keywords, the computer recognizes it, automatically records it, red-flags it for analysis”. 1998, people! Three years before 9/11! That part of the film is very compelling, and it definitely adheres to Wayne’s 3rd commandment, “Thou shalt be about something fascinating”.
You want action? You want pacing? You want chase scenes? Man, oh man this film has it all. It is relentless from the opening credits, and there is so much information, that you feel like you need to be a mainframe to process it. This is a good thing.
I really enjoyed the chase scene when the Environmental guy (Jason Lee) is trying to escape from the NSA thugs. The cutting is fast, but not so breakneck that you can’t follow what’s happening. Plus the voice over sound mixing of the techie NSA guys tracking him, and the cutaways to the satellites and choppers are just right. They seem to be tapped into every surveillance camera in the area, and when Lee is not visible by satellite he is traceable in other ways. There’s no way he can disappear. The climax of that scene is devastating, and really well done.
The other great chase scene comes when Dean is running through a tunnel (that I guess is supposed to be the Fort McHenry tunnel) and they keep finding him no matter how evasive his actions.
The film's climax is straight out of the end of "True Romance". Two groups that had no idea they were at odds are pointing guns at each other, while our hero finds himself smack dab in the middle unarmed. And, as is the case with "True Romance" you pretty much hope that everyone EXCEPT our hero ends up dead. The tension in "Enemy" doesn't really get a chance to build as beautifully as it does in "True Romance". The Tarantino script just seems to have a better hold on this aspect of a thriller.
Will Smith would certainly not be my first choice for a role of this kind. That being said, he does a fine job as the Hitchcock "Wrong Man" type, and adds just enough cleverness to offset the cluelessness. Would the film have been better with a more sharp-tongued edge at the center? Maybe, but I think that he pulls off playing a person to whom Lyle says a number of times “You are either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid”.
And how, you might ask (another question), was Hackman in his extrapolation of Harry Call 25 years later? Hackman always delivers that Hackman touch. He can be rude, abrasive, charming, funny, fierce and icy cold all within seconds of the other. Somehow, he makes it work.
The rest of the cast is really deep, and really good. Listen to this list;
Besides the people I already mentioned (Smith, Hackman, Voight, Lee, Robards) how about Jack Black, Seth Green, Lisa Bonet, Barry Pepper, Gabriel Byrne, Anna Gunn, Phillip Baker Hall, Tom Sizemore, Regina King and Larry King (no relation…that’s a joke, people).
So what? No room for Kevin Bacon in this flick?
On SECOND LOOK
How did “Enemy of the State” do in regards Wayne’s 11 Commandments? Pretty good on all counts except for 5, 7 and particularly 10. It definitely did not hit any emotional chord for me, nor did I find it transformative—I did not feel changed after watching this film. But many of my favorites also fall short in those categories.
What’s good about this film is really good; the interesting subject matter, the pacing and action, the stylistic elements. What really is a problem for me are all the "no fucking way" moments, and at the heart of them, the actual motor that drives the story. The murder, cover-up, and persecution of an innocent just go too far for even my fevered imagination.
And the most unbelievable thing of all? That there is a Congressman out there whose vote you can’t buy!
On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2 On Second Look: ✭✭✭