Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Errol Morris is known for his sensational documentaries dealing with shocking crime stories, and Sonia Kennebeck follows in that tradition with her new film Enemies of the State, which is produced by Morris himself. Interesting but feeling oddly detached, this is another example of a documentary whose flashiness distracts from the power of the central story.
The movie tells the story of an American family, filled with retired military servicemen, as they become targeted by the government because of the suspicious activities of their hacker son. And while the story is one that is definitely compelling at its core, the people telling it are almost too close to it, resulting in the film feeling like a bunch of paranoia and conspiracy theories.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing that this movie has to offer is a deconstruction of the ideals of patriotism and loyalty. Prior to the events being discussed, this family was about as gung ho and jingoistic as could be. And if the government can turn against even its most unflinchingly faithful citizens, how are we supposed to feel as average Amercians?
But the film really suffers from the fact that it doesn’t seem to understand the implications of its story. Comparisons are made to some more well-known whistleblowers’ cases as to communicate the scale of this buried incident, but the movie takes it from a more personal angle rather than exploring the greater consequences, and it doesn’t work as well as one would hope.
Obviously, there are issues with the safety and security of the subjects, and so Kennebeck relies heavily on reenactments to build her narrative. What makes these reenactments stand out, though, are that they are set to actual recordings and archive materials, the actors lip syncing to the actual subjects’ words.
And while there are some interviews with experts and people who knew the family, in addition to some of the family themselves, it is the dramatic elements that make this film so entertaining. But with this infotainment approach, it loses some of the depth and substance of the more journalistic aspects of the story.
Additionally, the movie feels a bit overlong. There are a lot of unexpected things happening in the narrative, but Kennebeck milks everything she possibly can out of every little bit of conflict. Even moments that have little real significance are blown out of proportion, and as a result, the film can feel rather artificial at times.
Enemies of the State is a solidly-made documentary, and fans of true crime documentaries will almost certainly be satisfied, but the filmmaker does a disservice to the power of the story. There are plenty of good things here, just not enough to make it memorable.
Enemies of the State screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.