Critics Pick

‘Enemies of the State’ Review: Espionage-Style Whistle-Blowing Documentary Thrills and Shocks Until the End

Sonia Kennebeck's film unfolds like a shape-shifting spy thriller, with twists and turns both complex and disturbing.

Enemies of the State
Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival

By its very composition, the amalgam word hacktivism houses a peculiar dichotomy. On one hand, it alludes to promoting justice through necessary online disobedience. On the other, the ethics of whatever those rule-breaking actions or their consequences might be remain open to debate. Such ambiguity lies at the core of “Enemies of the State,” Sonia Kennebeck’s mind-boggling, often challenging spy-thriller in documentary form, about a freaky and disturbing yarn of (possible) cyber-crime activities investigated by insatiable journalistic curiosity, though not always with a lucid destination in sight.

That lack of a clear target is frequently inherent in nonfiction storytelling: Documentary filmmakers discover, consider and reconsider the shape and facts of their story along the way and package them accordingly. And Kennebeck is already familiar with the complexities of delving into convoluted episodes of whistle-blowing and government pressure — topics that also concern “Enemies of the State” — thanks to her taut 2016 film “National Bird.” Though the moving parts of the narrative she pieces together here change so often that, despite the filmmaker’s truth-seeking inquisitiveness, the results are often confusing even when they are increasingly shocking.

But that’s not always a bad thing, if you’re prepared to be recruited as a detective of sorts alongside the filmmaker. “Enemies of the State” drops its viewers directly into a maze decked with loaded espionage words — CIA, FBI, Anonymous, Snowden, Wikileaks, Russia, surveillance, what have you — and expects them to join Kennebeck in the pursuit of digging up the truth in the strange case of Matt DeHart, a former Air National Guard member whose home was raided in 2010 on child pornography charges with a related all-access search warrant. He and his family explicitly denied the accusations.

Being an active hacker (well, hacktivist) who had connections to the decentralized Anonymous Collective as well as Wikileaks and spent most of his time in front of a screen in a dark room, the then-25-year-old DeHart claimed that FBI fabricated this shameful allegation in order to access his computer files. According to him, those drives included classified information about a scandalous CIA operation off which DeHart was preparing to blow the lid for public interest. He was arrested, spending nearly two years in prison during which he was allegedly tortured by the government. Upon his release, his parents Paul and Leann decided to take their son and flee their suburban home in the middle of the night to seek political asylum in Canada.

But is Matt innocent of the child pornography claims? You might default to seeing him as a wrongfully framed, honorable crusader fighting against corrupt government forces if the Laura Poitras brand of documentaries like “Risk” and “Citizenfour” got under your skin. Though slowly (and without giving away spoilers), something just starts feeling a bit fishy. With a nonlinear structure and the help of various talking-heads interviewees — attorneys, governmental figures, professors, detectives and prosecutors whose viewpoints clash with one another — that Matt might indeed be guilty becomes an undeniable possibility.

Also not helping his image is the involvement of his ex-veteran, seemingly upstanding mom and dad — what starts off as protective familial instincts soon assumes a bizarre dimension once we realize the couple is perhaps a little too involved with their adult son’s doings. Slowly, Kennebeck reveals just how helicopter they were as parents, muscling themselves into every meeting Matt takes with his multiple attorneys as if they were trying to cover up something terrible about their offspring.

With all these fragmented bits and pieces, “Enemies of the State” becomes a deafening, paranoia-inducing cacophony of unreliable sources in due course, with all parties holding onto their own version of the story. There’s good reason the film opens with an Oscar Wilde quote, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Throughout, Kennebeck and her gifted editor Maxine Goedicke take these words to heart, expertly weaving late-blooming and extremely troubling evidence into the tail end of “Enemies of the State” to our utter astonishment. When they don’t lean too reality-TV-esque cheesy, also impressive are the Errol Morris-style reenactments that Kennebeck orchestrates, pairing them with an intense, heart-thumping score and original audio recordings that actors persuasively lip-synch through a notable feat of sound editing.

As one of the subjects of the film so accurately puts it, “We are all suffering from the promotion of lies as truth. If someone says something that is not true and repeats it enough times, it will be accepted by others.” While “Enemies of the State” does not necessarily provide all the answers, it sneakily sharpens your analytical radar by its haunting end. And in today’s conspiracy-theory-fueled world, that just might be everything.

‘Enemies of the State’ Review: Espionage-Style Whistle-Blowing Documentary Thrills and Shocks Until the End

Reviewed online, New York, Sept. 11, 2020. (In Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 104 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Codebreaker Films production. Producer: Ines Hofmann Kanna. Executive Producer: Errol Morris.
  • Crew: Director: Sonia Kennebeck. Camera: Torsten Lapp. Editor: Maxine Goedicke. Music: Insa Rudolph.
  • With: Joel Widman, Chris Clark, James Donahower, Suzanne Pratley.