Enemies of the State fails to probe deeply, content with its story’s sensational surface at the expense of more meaningful study.
Produced by genius documentarian and foremost interviewer of American war criminals, Errol Morris, Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State comes marked with a certain air of importance. As Morris is the closest thing nonfiction cinema has to a household name (Morgan Spurlock excepted), his stamp of approval means something — not just in terms of the quality of the piece, but also its formal and thematic concerns. The film Kennebeck has made fits neatly into the veteran director’s wheelhouse: It’s a mix of talking head interviews, archival recordings, and reenactments that tell the story of Matthew DeHart, an Anonymous-associated hacktivist convicted on child pornography charges, whose family insists he was actually targeted by the US government for possessing state secrets. It’s a spy thriller with all the genre’s bells and whistles: surveilled visits to foreign embassies, midnight border crossings, and an evil government conspiracy to take down one dangerous man.
Like Morris’ landmark The Thin Blue Line, Kennebeck’s film is filled with conflicting reportage and ambiguity, which keeps it compelling all the way through. In a centerpiece sequence returned to several times, a reenactment of DeHart’s refugee hearing in Canada is dubbed with the audio of the actual hearing, collapsing fact and performance into one and providing the first clue that DeHart might not be the hero of this story. But this is also a film undone by its own narrative framework, as late-breaking reveals about DeHart reframe the film and start to take it into the lurid, exploitative territory of recent Netflix true crime documentaries. The victims in this story are, by this point, so thoroughly pushed to the margins that their reemergence plays more like a gotcha moment at the expense of a whole host of journalists and free speech advocates than anything actually approaching justice.
Just as disappointing is Kennebeck’s refusal to pull on arguably the story’s most interesting thread and explore the troubling connection between hacktivism and the seedier parts of the Internet. After all, Anonymous grew out of 4Chan, a site notorious for formerly hosting child pornography, and which continues to be a breeding ground for incel and alt-right ideologues. It would seem impossible to discuss the case of Matthew DeHart without at least questioning whether or not there is something rotten within the core of the movement, yet Enemies of the State somehow manages. In the end, it is content with peddling its own narrative at the expense of the bigger picture.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 3.