This review of “Enemies of the State” was first published after the film’s debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Was hacker Matthew DeHart a whistleblower, a spy or a child pornographer? Or some combination of the above? Watching the provocative new documentary “Enemies of the State,” your opinion may shift more than once, as director Sonia Kennebeck (“National Bird”) pursues both the elusive nature of truth and the seductive qualities of conspiracy theories.
Featuring interviews with the key players alongside dramatized re-creations — the documentary pioneer of this method, Errol Morris, acts an executive producer here — Kennebeck takes us deep inside one family’s harrowing ordeal and pulls the rug out from our assumptions and prejudices, offering an array of contradicting experts whose judgment and assertions shift in their credibility.
The facts are these: Air National Guard veteran Matt DeHart, who purports to be involved with on-line whistleblowers Anonymous and Wikileaks, has his house ransacked by federal investigators looking for evidence regarding child pornography allegations against Matt. He flees to Mexico shortly thereafter with thumb drives he claims contain volatile classified information regarding an FBI investigation into a CIA operation.
His parents Paul and Leann — both veterans themselves — rally to their son’s defense, and the next few years involve attempted defections to Russia and Venezuela, an application for asylum in Canada, a car accident on a snowy highway, allegations of government torture and interrogation using the drug Thorazine, and activists and journalists seeking to help out Matt, particularly in the wake of events surrounding Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
In the face of all these conflicting testimonies, then — what’s the truth? That’s the onion that Kennebeck and her editor Maxine Goedicke (“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word”) so skillfully unwind over the course of “Enemies of the State.” People prone to assume the worst about governments and the best about individuals will evaluate the presented evidence in one way, and their opposites in the other, and it isn’t until the film’s final 15 minutes that the audience is presented with the most unassailable facts. (In the timeline of making the film, this final bit of intel came late in the game as well, or so the film’s intertitles suggest.)
Without ever announcing itself as such, the film brilliantly dissects the way that conspiracy theories work and why they’re so irresistible. In an age when so many are willing to dismiss reputable, sourced news and science in favor of shadowy and even anonymous internet “experts,” “Enemies of the State” sneakily but indelibly takes us through one individual case and tests our individual ability to filter out white noise and presupposition in favor of what’s irrefutable.
For a story about espionage on one hand and accusations of child endangerment on the other, the film focuses on a family that, on paper, seems to be as upright and four-square as possible: Paul DeHart, who entered the ministry after serving in both the Army and the Air Force, describes Leann and himself as “the kind of kids who always sat down and followed the rules.” They’re clearly loving parents to Matt, but as the film progresses, we are left to wonder whether or not they’re playing too large a role in the life of their son as he enters his late twenties, and whether or not their distrust of the authorities represents creeping paranoia or a justified response to outrageous government interference.
It’s also a case study in extremes; it’s plausible, given years of disclosure of governmental dirty tricks, that accusations of child molestation would be used to silence an activist who has become privy to confidential information. By the same token, it’s just as plausible that someone guilty of child pornography might weave a fiction around himself and his family to explain being the target of a federal investigation. Kennebeck’s ability to work with both possibilities seems to have translated in access to players on both sides, from the DeHarts to the Tennessee prosecutors working the child pornography case.
“Enemies of the State” is a chilling watch, both for what it contemplates and for the internal path that each viewer will take while experiencing it. That some will come away from the film unwilling to accept its conclusions merely proves the film’s point.
“Enemies of the State” opens Friday in limited theatrical and on video on demand.