‘Enemies of the State’ Review: The Frustrations of Paranoid Delusions | TIFF 2020

     September 11, 2020

enemies-of-the-state

The sad and compelling story at the center of Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary Enemies of the State is about the the lengths parents will go to for their children. Despite putting parents Paul and Leann DeHart at the forefront of the documentary and relying on their point of view for the story about how the government prosecuted (or, in their telling, persecuted) their son Matt, there’s little emotional impact in a film that’s geared more towards a the tone of a paranoid thriller. The structure of Enemies of the State, rather than being upfront with the audience, invites the viewer to participate in a shared delusion and then pulls back the curtain, which makes for cheap theatrics and facile conclusions about the nature of truth. Torn between a tale of government conspiracy and a personal tale of family tragedy, Enemies of the State comes away feeling muddled at best and hollow at worst.

In April 2013, Matt DeHart and his parents Paul and Leann fled their home in Newburgh, Indiana to seek asylum in Canada. Matt had been involved with the hacktivist collective Anonymous since its founding in 2006 and operated a server that functioned as a clearinghouse of sorts for the information that would eventually get passed to Wikileaks. The government began to crackdown on his activities in January 2010, and later that year, Matt DeHart was arrested as part of an espionage investigation. At the same time, Matt was being prosecuted for soliciting child pornography from minors he had met online. The question then becomes if the child pornography charges are bogus and part of government conspiracy to prosecute DeHart. That’s what his parents believe, but what if the government persecution angle is the cover-up for DeHart’s child pornography charges?

Rather than illuminating the truth, Enemies of the State frequently falls into the morass of a differing viewpoints. The DeHarts believe they are victims of a government conspiracy because Matt came into possession of damning information (although the information has never been verified or even seen by anyone outside of Leann). The government cracked down on DeHart, and he could be a political victim on par with figures like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Aaron Swartz. But then the child pornography angle creeps back in, and it’s kind of gross how Kennebeck is willing to treat it like a potential government ruse until that approach is no longer tenable, and then throws up her hands and basically says, “Oh, unknowable universe!”

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Image via TIFF

To follow this case for years and end it with a couple of talking heads whose insight amounts to nothing more than “engage your critical thinking skills and reassess your truth when provided with new information” is a shallow and simplistic conclusion for a film that is never happier when it’s using overwrought dramatizations so it can play like a paranoid thriller. It would be one thing if these dramatizations were how the DeHarts saw their story, and then everything else was photographed differently to show the depths of their beliefs, but the whole film is shot with low lighting and dark shadows. Rather than crafting a story based on the totality of the evidence she acquired, Enemies of the State plays like Kennebeck fully bought into DeHart’s story, and when that story could no longer sustain the “these child pornography charges are false and designed to strongarm Matt DeHart”, the director tacked on the last 15 minutes with a slapped-on message about conflicting truths.

Oddly enough, what Kennebeck never really seems to explore is the possibility that both stories are true. There’s nothing that precludes DeHart’s belief that he’s a victim of government persecution and the prosecution’s case that DeHart engaged in soliciting child pornography from minors. No matter which narrative you choose to believe, it never adds up to much because all Kennebeck has is an interesting yarn that she probably planned to tie together once she could land an extensive interview with DeHart. But left only with his previous testimony and the unfailing support of his parents, there’s a big Matt DeHart-shaped hole in this documentary and all that can fill it is a shrug.

I have to admit that documentaries like Enemies of the State bother me a bit. It’s tantalizing to go down a rabbit hold of conspiracy theories, but a good documentarian seeks to illuminate rather than confound. Over halfway through Enemies of the State, I was left wondering what the larger picture was supposed to be here. What did Kennebeck have beyond some flashy visuals and colorful narrative? The problem with the hacker-on-the-run narrative is that it misses systemic issues in favor of interpersonal ones. The government is some shadowy force, but rather than working to understand its operation, we’re left to accept that the government will crush the heroic individual whose only crime is a willingness to point out the crimes of the state. Enemies of the State acknowledges that the truth is more complicated than that, but only once it has no other choice.

Rating: D

Enemies of the State does not currently have a release date.

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