We live in a time that fetishizes a post-truth. In our post-fact world, suspicion of institutions is at an all time high, and citizens on both left and right find ways to pretzel themselves into believing in grand conspiracies as the mundane facts of incompetence and hubris feel too constrained for the magnitude of our society’s problems. Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary Enemies of the State, about a hacker kid, his crusading parents, and a tenacious legal system, brilliantly undermines these impulses.
The film focuses on the remarkable story of Matt DeHart, a former Air National Guard member who moved back to his parents’ home and spends his time running a server for Anonymous, the notorious hacktivist collective. His parents, Paul and Leann, have strong ties to government service, with his preacher father previously an employee of the National Security Administration, the branch of the intelligence community even more nefarious than the CIA.
When Matt is arrested on child pornography charges, he first escapes to Mexico, and then, along with his family, heads to Canada with a USB key in tow to seek political asylum. The argument made is that the charges are a ruse, masking a desire for the government to secure the servers that may have links to Wikileaks and the dissemination of secret information to the public.
What’s fascinating about the film is how it shifts its gaze throughout. From the outset, the story of the DeHarts is extremely compelling, with local and journalists and professors speaking to the decades of malfeasance that the American government has engaged in to try and root out these leaks. Other lauded anti-establishment leakers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowdon are evoked, and it’s easy to see how DeHart’s behaviour is consistent with theirs, and his charges likely trumped up for the sake of subterfuge.
Yet as the film goes on, our desire to be placated by the conspiracy is assiduously undercut, with the story growing increasingly complex as more and more data is presented. This is a common trick seen in the work of executive producer Errol Morris, but Kennebeck’s film does something even more impactful, managing to undercut not only narrative expectations but to interrogate our own impulses to buy into the larger conspiracy.
Thus, the story of DeHart speaks not only to the factual points of prosecutorial overreach, it also speaks to the banality of these hacktivist communities, requiring little more than some sophisticated computer knowledge and a roof (in this case paid for by the parent) under which to carry out acts that vacillate between treasonous and morally poisonous. We don’t need James Bond villains to carry out this information distribution, and the simple techniques of grooming from within a video game need not rise to the level of a grand act of espionage.
Yet we want to believe in the grander narrative, to hope, in somewhat contradictory ways, that the things that are broken are that way because of grand plans and nefarious cabals, where the white hat, computer savvy generation is only taken down in order to silence their avenging actions. A world where such behaviours are a bulwark against tyranny feels right, and even the most law-abiding finds some solace in the notion of a Robin Hood laying bare the evil intents of a runaway state.
Yet even this narrative depends on our own delusions, the myth-making itself often needing to ignore the nuances and complexities of the situation, thus trading one fatuous and unexamined precept (say, “patriotism”) for another (say, “resistance”), with little room for navigating the deeper aspects at play.
It’s these themes, and the complexity and subtlety with which they are presented, that elevate Enemies of the State above the normal, often voyeuristic true-crime doc. This is not a documentary that provides definitive answers, but it does ask all the relevant questions, allowing the participants themselves to engage in the discourse surrounding events. Ideas are laid out in order to be measured by a responsive viewer, and it’s this faith in the audience, and the remarkable restraint with which these events are presented, that elevates Kennebeck’s film above the fray.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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September 25, 2020