In the final moments of Tony Scott’s ENEMY OF THE STATE, Will Smith’s character Robert Clayton Dean looks at his all-too-90s CRT TV set with its flickering analog signal and then: he shows up on screen ala some type of closed circuit technology. Scott’s ode to – or prescient telling of – America’s obsession with surveillance, encompasses a few running tropes of thrillers of the 90s, as well as establishes the filmmaker’s ultimate aesthetic going forward. For Scott – especially late 90s through early 2000’s Scott – surveillance and cinema co-mingle to the extent of becoming one, and it all starts with ENEMY OF THE STATE.
Surveillance culture is all over cinema of the early and mid 1990s. From the satirical cinema of DEMOLITON MAN; to the cyber thrills and queries of HACKERS, THE NET and THE MATRIX; the voyeuristic pleasures of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, SLIVER and LOST HIGHWAY; and the reality TV focused THE TRUMAN SHOW and ED TV. Surveillance and the human nature to record, document and share our varied experiences transgressed genres and modes of access throughout the decade, culminating in the year 2000 with Mike Figgis’ four-screen split-screen surveillance drama, TIMECODE. It was a period where we didn’t quite know what was coming, but we knew that it would pose as many questions as answers, which nobody had.
More than twenty years prior to the release of ENEMY OF THE STATE, Francis Ford Coppola gave us THE CONVERSATION in 1974, featuring Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul attempting to stop a murder plot that he may have stumbled upon via his security job. Scott’s film also features Hackman, in a role not all that dissimilar to his part in THE CONVERSATION. Here playing Edward Lyle, an obsessive, paranoid man that may actually be Caul twenty years later. But the two have more than just Hackman in common, they have murder. At face value, neither Coppola or Scott’s films are murder mysteries, but they introduce the potential and/or actually realized concept in some sort of framework of surveillance. With Coppola, it’s surveillance being used to stop a vicious act; for Scott, that act is recorded and used subsequently for purposes of blackmail.
Though ENEMY OF THE STATE never mentions the word “snuff”, it deals explicitly with what is, for all intents and purposes, a snuff film. The crux of our narrative is a video recording of a politician being executed, which has naturally fallen into the wrong hands. The idea/myth/actuality of snuff has been emulated or used as a narrative device since the 1970s via the likes of Paul Schrader’s HARDCORE, John McNaughton’s HENRY: PORTRAIN OF A SERIAL KILLER, Joel Schumacher’s 8MM and – perhaps most pertinent here – Marc Evans webcam shot, “Big Brother” aping MY LITTLE EYE, showcasing what happens when murder goes viral. Yet Scott’s film isn’t as concerned with the act on the tape as it is with the idea of the tape itself existing, and that’s what dominates both its narrative and its aesthetic.
Scott’s films following ENEMY OF THE STATE would, if not involve explicitly, adhere to the aesthetic of surveillance culture established in this film. From SPY GAME (as obvious a use for these devices as any) through his strong, excessive body of work with Denzel Washington – MAN ON FIRE, DÉJÀ VU, TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE and UNSTOPPABLE – Scott utilized satellite imagery and various types of cameras/monitors/other image creating and/or delivering technologies as if he was constantly trying to one up UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY. It’s an inspired, identifiable aesthetic that feels as cutting edge as it does old school, seemingly always one step ahead of the curve, yet constantly waiting to see what that curve may be.