“A sleek, creative approach hardly deters questions of what the movie is ultimately able to convey.”
by Ken Bakely
It is clear that nothing is clear. Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State wants to communicate the uncertainties of the case she’s presenting in every frame. Everything is cloaked in secret and festering with deception, either on the part of the defendants, the prosecution, or both. Through a combination of talking-head interviews and hybrid reenactments (actors lip-synching archival audio), Kennebeck lays out the bizarre case of Matt DeHart, an Anonymous-affiliated hacker who lives an in an unassuming Midwestern home with his parents, both of whom have military backgrounds (and he served in the Air National Guard). Claiming to have uncovered bombshell CIA documents, he is shortly thereafter put under investigation for producing child pornography. DeHart says that the charges are wholly manufactured, and he and his family embark on a myriad of efforts to flee the country, visiting the Russian and Venezuelan embassies before unsuccessfully applying for asylum in Canada, additionally asserting that he was extrajudicially abducted and tortured by U.S. authorities seeking information. What follows is a deeply convoluted narrative, in which solid answers and the ability to confidently connect the dots feel like extraordinary luxuries, and the only thing more suspicious than not having any information at all is having information that seems selective and spotty; random snippets of data contextualized with assertions rather than fact.
On that note, it’s crucial to note that DeHart’s defenders, including the film’s primary interviewees,* Paul and LeAnn DeHart – the subject’s parents – must rely on largely anecdotal evidence, primarily originating from his own statements. It’s easy to watch the beginning of Enemies of the State and assume that it will be a presentation for the defense – after all, it would hardly be out of character for the U.S. government to plant evidence to dispose of people it would rather not deal with – but it’s more complicated than that. Kennebeck’s greatest strength as a storyteller is how she is able to look at a profoundly tangled mass of threads and walk us through in a way that feels organic and easy to follow. This is doubly impressive when one considers that the entire point is that we don’t actually know what’s happening. The central question at hand is whether Matt DeHart is an innocent whistleblower methodically destroyed by the dark reaches of the intelligence community, or if he is a shameless liar who tried to take advantage of paranoia about the state to distract from his hideous crimes. Both seem plausible here (and perhaps even a synthesis of the two), but it’s not really the point of the movie to even lean in either direction. It wouldn’t be possible, anyway. Kennebeck emphasizes the extraordinary difficulties that can come when trying to deduce the truth. She admirably does not manipulate the facts in search of an easy narrative. Quite the opposite: she slyly lets the viewer draw assumptions that may be later challenged, allowing for reflection on what causes such assumptions in the first place.
It’s better, then, to think of this less as a comprehensive piece of journalism, and more like a case study on the difficulties and dangers in trying to extrapolate from the very limited amount that we know. This is a vital lesson, but as Enemies of the State approaches it from different angles, again and again, through its meticulous profiling of the DeHarts and the case, the film spends large chunks of its runtime feeling like it’s just spinning its wheels. While fascinatingly presenting its details, there is less substance to the surrounding structure. A sleek, creative approach hardly deters questions of what the movie is ultimately able to convey, when all of the exhausting twists and turns of the story wind with seemingly no end in sight. The movie runs out of things to say – or perhaps more troublingly, never had all that much to say in the first place. Kennebeck seems unsure of how to concoct this into a feature-length film, and though she is able to keep us engaged with her sharp directorial style, there’s the question of how much she can do when, by design, there isn’t much underneath the surface. While Enemies of the State never loses sight of its core message, the film ultimately departs on a frustratingly empty note, and not in the way that it intended to be.
*Matt DeHart agreed to a plea bargain in 2015 and was released from prison in 2019, but he declined to be interviewed for this film.