Who’s watching the watchmen? asks ”Enemy of the State,” the Will Smith paranoia-fest coming to video this week. The answer, on the most superficial pop-junk level, is that we are, since this illogically entertaining thriller trots out every op-ed-page bugaboo regarding privacy in the modern age and then shows us the masterminds behind all the surveillance. Who turn out to be: goateed, snickering, twentysomething cybergeeks in the employ of the National Security Agency.
Gee, that makes sense. I mean, who else can we turn to for domestic movie villainy these days unless it’s those darn kids spending too much time on their computers?
For all its jazzy fear-mongering, though, ”Enemy” taps into the average American’s distrust of all those eyes and ears out there — ATM cameras, rifle microphones, satellite photos, bank databases — and then imagines what might happen if the government could access those feeds and act against its perceived enemies. In this case, the ”enemy” is a slick D.C. lawyer (Smith) who accidentally comes into possession of a videotape of a senator’s murder. Soon, his job, marriage, and credit rating are destroyed and his every move and phone call are monitored through tracers, wiretaps, and skycams. To out-spook the spooks, Smith’s character has to smoke out an NSA ghost, a master surveillant named Brill (Gene Hackman) who gives our hero a short, sharp, shocked course in our everyday lack of privacy.
I say the movie imagines all this because I personally believe a government that can’t find an up-to-date bombing map of Belgrade does not have the bottom-line brains to create a Big Brother bureau of said magnitude. No, these days the old Eeevil-Government-Conspiracy plotline pales next to the garden-variety reality of private-sector surveillance — the fact that any large company can monitor its employees’ phone calls, e-mails, and Web surfing.
”Enemy”’s a glittery dodge, and it correctly senses that, for all the fuss and bother, privacy is probably a nonissue for a lot of people. Unlike the early ’70s, we’re now living in a deeply ingrained culture of celebrity — a landscape in which everyone has his own Web page, reality programming fills the airwaves, and people spill their guts on trash TV for the nanosecond of fame it brings them. So who’s watching the watchmen? Not us — we’re too busy watching ourselves.