By Ty Burr
Updated June 18, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

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.

That wouldn’t make a very interesting movie, though, would it? At least not in the nudgy, hyperactive, Jerry Bruckheimer sense. But, wait, someone did make a film about corporate surveillance, and told the tale from the watchman’s point of view. In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 The Conversation, a withdrawn wiretapper — ”the best bugger on the West Coast” — finds himself caring, against all his professional instincts, about the people on whom he’s eavesdropping.

That wiretapper is played by none other than Gene Hackman, and watching Enemy, it’s fun to speculate that his curt, bitter Brill could be Harry Caul, 25 years later and cloaked even tighter in anonymity. In all other respects, though, the two films are polar opposites. Instead of Enemy‘s MTV-paced frenzy, the glacial Conversation is as repressed as its antihero. Which is, in part, the point: A watchman needs to be utterly still if he’s not to be discovered. But as Harry listens to the recording he’s made of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), coaxing their words out of the ambient noise, he begins to fear they’re in danger — from either his businessman employer (Robert Duvall) or his employer’s henchman (a sneering, pre- Star Wars Harrison Ford).

Things don’t turn out the way Harry imagined, of course, and the final shot of the wiretapper slumped in his trashed apartment, helpless to find the bug he knows is there, packs a more emotional punch than anything in Enemy of the State. Yet the later film also turns the tables on its watchers, in a more conventionally enjoyable (and utterly unbelievable) way. Producer Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott aren’t really interested in probing issues of privacy — they’re just hanging a lickety-split thriller on an au courant topic, and to hell with the improbabilities.

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.
Enemy: B
Conversation: A