"Enemy of the State"

Movement 2B in a critical exquisite corpse project analyzing films by Tony Scott. This entry focuses on _Enemy of the State_ (1998).
Ben Simington


This article is part of the critical project Tony Scott: A Moving Target in which an analysis of a scene from a Tony Scott film is passed anonymously to the next participant in the project to respond to with an analysis of his or her own.

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Righteous-subordination-as-genuine-patriotism is the theme of Scott's Enemy of the State, a theme that's transferred over from his earlier effort Crimson Tide. Between the two projects, there is also a noteworthy role reversal: Hackman exchanges the mantle of Captain Ramsey’s blindly nationalistic aggressor for that of the justifiably paranoid super-hacker, Brill. Brill has been targeted Public Enemy No. 1 due to his cyber-civil-disobedience against the proposed “Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act,” a kind of prescient, long way of saying The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act (which it turns out is actually a short way of saying: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. Yeah, right, thanks guys). Will Smith as the ambivalently apolitical attorney Robert Clayton Dean finds himself forced to choose a side after unwittingly coming into possession of key evidence that could expose the corruption inherent in The Act, and Brill begrudgingly accepts responsibility to protect the naïve Dean while giving him an explosive crash-course in conspiracy “theory”...and practice. All of this sound and fury doubles as a moral lesson about the weight of witness during our satellite age wherein the fine line between voyeurism and privacy is rapidly narrowing, thus placing Enemy of the State amidst the admirable company of other technologically-minded “Cinema of Surveillance” classics (most notably The Conversation, but also Rear Window, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Blow Up, Blow Out, Minority Report, Maps.Google.Com).

In the scene I've selected, Brill and Dean have just hijacked an untraceable car to finally evade their attackers after almost forty screen-time minutes of uninterrupted pursuit. They have also come to accept that they will both need each other’s cooperation if they stand any chance to survive. This thirty second scene has only five shots, all of which follow a simple shot / reverse shot structure while the pair breathes a shared sigh of relief while driving through a protective tunnel. Per the previous example, the simplicity of the editing showcases the performances: in this case, a decrescendo of exhausted relief after narrow escape. It visually compliments the increasingly even-keeled repartee between a reluctant odd-couple who have accepted their fates as unlikely action sidekicks, and it confirms their now-earned trust in one another.

What sets the five shots in this scene apart from a totally traditional framing and editing scheme is the lovely foreground reflection of passing freeway fluorescents that rhythmically pulses across the lower half of both camera set-ups. Positioned closely enough in each respective image to provide the cumulative impression of a single continuous frequency unifying the entire sequence, the reflection plays out kind of like an EKG reading and/or kind of how I would imagine a Barnett Newman zip to traverse its frame if it were animated. It makes this respite purr with lulling electricity otherwise absent from the original scripted material. Scott doesn’t prioritize an unobstructed view of the film’s current subjects but rather introduces a surprising, sustained graphic element laminated atop the surface of an otherwise straightforward scene. It declares its aesthetic significance equal to that of character and plot, and it provides a beautiful visual summation of the film’s high concept that no exchange of information goes unmitigated by some kind of outside factor.

In 1998's Enemy of the State, dialogue between two characters unfolds across an unassuming shot structure, yet the addition of a simple though salient aesthetic flourish becomes illustrative of the visual energy Tony Scott injected into his images.


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