The seeds of an interesting story are planted in Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary about the paranoia and espionage surrounding a child pornography trial.
Documentarian Sonia Kennebeck has become consumed with whistleblowers and their stories. Known for her interest in how the United States government interacts with their citizens, especially citizens willing to damage the country’s reputation, Kennebeck’s latest, Enemies of the State, becomes no different, devolving from a story about a small-town military family to one with espionage, hacking, anthrax, torture, and deportation. More than just a fascination, Kennebeck’s films examine the heroic complex of these people, and if they warranted the supposed justice they received.
In Enemies of the State, Kennebeck follows the DeHart family, two military parents and their son, Matt, who goes on trial for possession of child pornography. A “kid that grew up online,” Matt’s journey is chronicled through the documentary, as Kennebeck uses reenactments, court transcripts, unreleased audio, and extensive interviews with anyone that seemed to touch the trial, sentencing, asylum proceedings, or even childhood of DeHart. Kennebeck’s film follows the path of a standard thriller, rarely deviating from the chronological order of events. It hopes to surprise you, give you a healthy dose of twists and turns, all stemming from the U.S. government and this one tech-savvy young man.
As a dramatic thriller, the documentary succeeds, keeping you engaged through the story of DeHart’s fleeing the country to the media circus that got swept up in his story. And it’s certainly a story to tell: DeHart, following his arrest, claims he was set up by the government due to his links with WikiLeaks and the Anonymous hacker organization. As the story progresses, though, with both sides of lawyers giving Kennebeck no-holds-barred interviews, the reliability of each person comes into question, due to the absurdity of everyone’s paranoia and assurance that they’re correct. There doesn’t seem to be a reliable narrator.
From DeHart’s parents to the local prosecutors, each person believes they know the truth of this case. Kennebeck creates a world, a very real one, that is filled with people hoping desperately that they’re right, either for the sake of DeHart or the victims of his alleged deceit. Regardless, Kennebeck’s documentary is clear in this fact: there certainly is a victim in this story, and likely more than one.
As a dramatic thriller, the documentary succeeds, keeping you engaged through the story of DeHart’s fleeing the country to the media circus that got swept up in his story.
Enemies of the State’s insistence on constant recreation of events almost weighs it down, threatening to overtake the reality of these people’s lives, the swirling obsession between the FBI, concerned parents, and determined prosecutors. But the story’s changing nature never allows the film to falter, as long as Kennebeck lets the real-life narrative lead the way. Straight-laced in its depiction and interview style, the film lacks flair and style, instead opting for constant talking heads and even-more-constant reenactments, most of which neither add nor detract from the words being spoken as pseudo-voiceover.
The power of Kennebeck’s documentary lies with each audience member. Do you care about Matt DeHart? Who do you trust and whose story do you believe? Though the film skews towards sympathy for DeHart, new information comes to light that shows the filmmaker’s much closer to neutral than expected. But DeHart and his family’s plight, according to their version of events, might not drum up any semblance of sympathy. The DeHarts still share a portion of the blame, regardless, and it becomes harder to reconcile their impulsive decision-making as this unfinished story continues forward. If you aren’t interested in whistleblowers, specifically those that never actually leaked the important information, then Enemies of the State simply won’t be a film of note.
Due to its commitment to (somewhat) traditional documentary stylistic choices, it doesn’t automatically reel you in. But Enemies of the State only increases with value as you do more research, you consider who in the film thinks they’re acting heroic (hint: it’s nearly everyone), the way everyone reconciles their decisions, and who is actually to blame for this messy decade of events. Even with a more recent influx in espionage and whistleblower films, Kennebeck’s film does just enough to be a worthy entry.
Enemies of the State is now playing in limited release in theaters.