Enemies of the State
(USA, 104 min.)
Dir. Sonia Kennebeck
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
One unexpected twist anticipates another in Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State. The film is a jaw-dropper of a wild-but-true tale that leaves a viewer guessing. Allegiances and perceptions shift throughout the film as the saga unfolds with an addictive series of revelations. You could call Enemies of the State a true crime film, but Kennebeck shatters all notions of reliable truth, leaving a viewer shaken and disoriented. One shares the subjects’ sense of confusion and uncertainty, or perhaps becomes another victim in the tempest of deception perpetrated by one or all parties involved in the affair.
Enemies of the State explores the bizarre case of Matt DeHart, a former Air National Guard member, who became the target of a series of investigations beginning in 2010. Using a mix of interviews with DeHart’s parents Paul and Leann, other implicated parties, and experts in addition to archival audio records and dramatic re-enactments, Kennebeck recounts with riveting tension the painful journey for the DeHarts that began when police offers stormed the house searching for evidence to corroborate child pornography charges against Matt. The conservative DeHarts, both former Cold War spies and observant Catholics (Paul is now a pastor) are as shocked by the allegations against their son as they are the violation of their privacy.
The plot thickens, however, when Matt offers his defense. He tells his parents that the child pornography charges are actually an excuse for the government to seize his computer. The tech-savvy Matt claims to be working with the hacktivist group Anonymous and alleges that he backed up files on the deep web that could eventually be released on WikiLeaks. He is a middleman for whistleblowers, so to speak, and safeguards secrets that the government wants to find.
The dilemma escalates like a frenzied game of ping-pong as two cases unfold: the criminal charges against Matt and the figurative charges against the state. Both cases are extremely vague. The police’s evidence against Matt isn’t especially compelling, but his story about government surveillance is. The DeHarts, flabbergasted and enraged by the mounting circumstantial evidence to support Matt’s claims, feel violated that the country they served would suspect them of wrongdoing. However, being former spies, they also know what the government can and will do in the name of national security.
Kennebeck takes audiences down a dizzying rabbit hole as the DeHarts seek asylum in Canada and navigate nearly a decade of hellish legal battles. In Toronto, Matt becomes a hero for truth-tellers. He receives extensive profiles and media coverage, and achieves levels of esteem and support reserved for whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. As more evidence appears, though, the truth becomes more elusive as little adds up to support either story. There are also inconsistencies that challenge the competing narratives, like Matt’s random trip to Mexico and his visit to the Russian embassy. Approached within different contexts, these excursions could be evidence of a treasonous criminal avoiding prosecution or a persecuted whistleblower searching for safety. Kennebeck’s film articulates how easily one can manipulate the truth through confirmation bias, filling in gaps between details to satisfy a narrative one would prefer to believe.
The intricately assembled film evokes the work of Alex Gibney with its impeccably polished docu-thriller aesthetic and its overwhelming magnitude of information. Enemies of the State dumps an avalanche of information upon a viewer, putting audiences in the position of DeHart’s parents as they struggle to discern fact from fiction using little more than fragments, half-truths, interpretative leaps, and gut-level instincts. The work also evokes the canon of Errol Morris (one of the film’s executive producers) with its rigorous sleuthing and desire to ask doggedly the deeper questions the case deserves. What results is a spectacularly entertaining whirlwind that leaves audiences with more questions than answers. This observation is not a criticism, but a point of praise. In the absence of closure, the film demands audiences to interrogate the questions of security, paranoia, truth, and reason at the heart of the incomprehensible affair.
Enemies of the State premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
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Update (July 30, 2021): Enemies of the State is now in digital release in Canada.