Anthony Hubbard: Denzel Washington
Elise/Sharon: Annette Benning
Gen. Devereaux: Bruce Willis
Frank Haddad: Tony Shalhoub
Enemy of the State
I grew up in a conservative family, and was myself a conservative until only a few years ago. It was ingrained in me from an early age that Hollywood produces nothing but junk...good for entertainment, but morally neutral at best, and damnably wrong at worst. Gotta watch out for those subtexts. (How exactly do you dress a subtext? Pitchfork and horns?)
Since my "conversion" to the libertarian philosophy, I'm constantly amazed at finding movies - even big budget, major studio movies - that I not only enjoy, but agree with to a large degree. Of course, there's still a lot of statist crap out there, but we all expect that. Hmm...perhaps David Nolan actually had something with that map of his...
The Siege stars Denzel Washington as the FBI station chief, Annette Benning as a CIA spook, and Bruce Willis as General Devereaux, the army general tasked by President Clinton with solving the problem the FBI couldn't.
It's 1998 America, and we've finally angered the wrong people. Our long record of immunity from terrorism is over, as a multi-celled terrorist network starts operation in Brooklyn, New York. After an initial fake attack, and a warning which the FBI doesn't even understand because of inter-agency rivalry - the right hand doesn't know what the left hand does - the terror begins in earnest, starting with a destroyed bus, and moving to a packed theater. Finally, the terrorists drive an explosives-laden van into One Federal Plaza, the regional FBI headquarters, destroying the majority of area FBI assets. And before we hear any cheers in fly-over country, let me point out that the FBI are the good guys in this movie...the defenders of truth, justice and the American way. They're actually doing their job in this movie, a job which - in the absence of universal Laporte carry and a non-interventionist foreign policy - is quite necessary.
Flash now from the streets to the ivory tower. Smoke-filled rooms are out of vogue, but we get the the traditional round conference table with senators, generals and spooks. The decision-makers are briefed, by both FBI and CIA operatives. General Devereaux gives some unusually good advice on the prospects of "sending in the troops," stating that the army is "a broadsword, not a scalpel", and a little later that if they sent the troops in, they would squeeze the city until they found them, and then they would kill them, but that "no card-carrying member of the ACLU is more against it than I." It would be effective, but it would be messy.
Despite this good advice, and the apparent obviosity of the army's inability to fight this kind of battle, the decision must be made, and it must be made by politicians. Almost inevitably, the president invokes the War Powers act, suspends the Constitution, and declares martial law. (One of the things I like about the movie was several subtle shots at President Clinton, something which again surprised me, coming from Hollywood.)
Devereaux had seemed statesmanlike, and had displayed a wonderful concern - in a military man - for the rights of the citizens. It all changes, however, as soon as he is given the helm of the ship of state. General Devereaux immediately turns into a petty tyrant, claiming that he is "serving his president" (even acknowledging to the FBI man played by Washington that that service may not be in the best interest of the country.) Concentration camps are quickly set up, and arabic-speaking males between the ages of 14 and 30 are rounded up by house-to-house searches.
I have read reviews of this movie which gave the impression that Arabs - perhaps the most vulnerable minority in America today - were poorly served by it. I didn't see that. The film gave what I thought was a very balanced view of Arab-Americans, acknowledging - and portraying - that the vast majority are loyal to their adopted country, that they hate the violence as much as we do, and that the Koran is a book of peace, not of war. That many Arab-Americans would have preferred this movie not be made makes it no less an appropriate topic - not when bombers blow up embassies and presidents launch missiles.
There are several gems in this movie, such as when Washington asks the rhetorical question: "What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums, like we're doing, and put soldiers on the street, and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit! We do that, and everything we have bled, and fought, and died for, is over!"
Another is the common citizen's response to the soldiers and tanks on the streets, the house-to-house searches, the concentration camps: Christian, Jew and Muslim, black, white, and yellow, all rise up to march together against the new oppressors, waving placards stating "No Fear." I hope this solidarity is exactly what would happen in these circumstances. After all, we are all Americans. If we call ourselves by that title, a hyphen shouldn't change our solidarity against tyranny.
A third gem is advice from Benning to Washington, from CIA agent to FBI agent. It's something that we can all take to heart: "The most committed side, wins."
You'll have to pick up the rest of the gems yourself.
Frankly, I'm not particularly scared of the scenario in The Siege. The very factors that made the army the wrong choice to deal with the terrorist threat makes them unable to do very much against the American citizen. They can be a great nuisance, and they can even kill people, but they can't really police us to any great degree. A scoped 30.06 beats four aces, and a regular army can't beat a well-armed and motivated citizenry.
What does scare me is Enemy of the State.
Will Smith once again shows his star power in the role of Robert Dean, an up-and-coming labor lawyer in D.C. who inadvertently comes into possession of very damaging evidence against a ranking NSA official. They're not certain that he has it, but they suspect, and suspicion is enough for them to destroy Dean's life. Dean, however, has a hole card, a contact with an ex-NSA agent named Brill whom he occasionally uses for investigative work. Brill is drawn as the epitome of the scared - and scary - conspiracy theorist, but he's proven right on every occasion.
Brill likes his privacy even more than some libertarian curmudgeons I know, and doesn't want to get involved, but Dean finally convinces him by revealing that the NSA has framed him in a murder - of Brill's ward, his ex-partner's daughter. Using the NSA's own technology, the two set out to bring down the NSA team, and to teach a senator or two that a surveillance society can cut both ways, and even his high position might not save him.
The film is well-acted, and - with the exception of a fast-paced, frenetic style that I find distracting - it is well directed. The real star of the show, however, is the technology. F. Paul Wilson, the author of an unrelated book by the same name, said at VirtualCon1 that a friend in the know told him that Enemy of the State actually understates the abilities of the security services. (Don't you just love un-attributed third-hand information?) Unfortunately, I found every bit of the technology in the movie entirely plausible, and I can believe Wilson's friend.
If a quarter of Enemy of the State is reality, we already live in the surveillance society. If twice it is true...?
We've known for years that the government could read a license plate from orbit. Now it appears that they have 24 hour coverage of population centers, and plenty of fuel for retasking. What happens when a single command center can coordinate field operatives, helicopters, and real-time full-video orbital look-down? Can you say "nowhere to hide?"
Combine that with directional tracking bugs the size of watch batteries, complete access to telephone systems (and no worries about warrants - or did you really think they still cared?), shotgun mikes, microwave that can look through walls, video cameras virtually everywhere (and everyone willing to grant them access), and 1984 begins to seems like a pleasant dream of better days.
None of these technologies, taken by themselves, is particularly threatening. But when you put them all together into a highly coordinated arsenal, with the right geeks to run them, it's powerful. It's Orwellian.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
By the way... it seems to me that it would be really interesting if some mysterious monkeywrencher performed some "identity theft" on certain pro-NID congresspeople. Maybe when their credit cards and checks started bouncing like an episode of Baywatch, they might start realizing that the security state isn't such a fabulous idea, after all.
© Alexei Kurupatin 1998.
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