June 11, 2013

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Top: Edward Snowden, bottom, Jason Lee in ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)

“I made the judgment that we couldn’t survive with the popular impression of this agency [the NSA] being formed by the last Will Smith movie.” -ex-director of the NSA Michael Hayden to CNN, 1999

Before The Guardian’s video interview with Edward Snowden, the most damaging movie to the National Security Agency’s image was Enemy of the State (1998). Just another slam-bang Jerry Bruckheimer-Tony Scott blockbuster, it also depicted the NSA as a rogue operation that could tap the phones and bank records of American citizens at will. In the book Deep State, Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady report that, “Not a few NSA managers at the time saw the movie and privately thought, ‘If only!’”  Following a dustup with European governments over the NSA’s global surveillance program ECHELON, Enemy of the State convinced Hayden that the NSA had to make gestures towards transparency. But as Snowden’s leaks reveal, the NSA was continuing to gather the capabilities, if not the legal authorization to target American citizens, for the tools deployed in Enemy of the State.


Bruckheimer and his late production partner Don Simpson began developing Enemy of the State in 1991, with a one line idea about a man whose electronic identity is stolen. After the Baltimore Sun ran a series of articles on the NSA in 1995, a time when the agency was reluctant to admit it even existed, they collaborated with screenwriter David Marconi to build it up into a story about the surveillance state, which Tony Scott dramatized through use of spy cameras and satellite footage – a layering of textures he would later push to extremes in Man on Fire and Domino. In the press notes Bruckheimer utilized some classic Hollywood double-talk, eager to please all political factions:

“I’ve always been interested in the inevitable questions surrounding the invasion of privacy. With today’s technology anything is possible and everything is probable. I don’t think the public is truly aware of what’s at stake in terms of an individual’s privacy. But the other side of the controversy remains – we need to be able to protect our borders and our citizens. The NSA has been incredibly active in preventing terrorist attacks and finding those responsible for the rash of senseless bombings that have erupted recently.”

Despite this defense of NSA practices, he was denied cooperation from the agency. So for technical assistance he enlisted Larry Cox, an 11-year veteran of the NSA. In a bizarre bit of historical coincidence, Cox would, just a few years later, be in a position to make the film’s paranoid fantasies come true.

Cox was founder and president of the menacing-sounding ORINCON Sygenex Incorporated, which was acquired in 2003 by Lockheed Martin. where he became the Vice President of Signals Intelligence. In 2005 he became the senior vice president and general manager of the Intelligence & Information Solutions Business Unit (IISBU) of SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation). SAIC employs approximately 41,000 people that “serve customers in the U.S. Department of Defense, the intelligence community, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, other U.S. Government civil agencies and selected commercial markets.” SAIC was, along with Booz Allen Hamilton, the main contractor assigned to work on the NSA’s massive data mining Total Information Awareness project that was stripped of its funding by Congress in 2003. Cox came aboard two years later, but there are strong indications the program lived on well into his term. An expansive precursor to the Snowden-disclosed PRISM project, TIA sought to “predict terrorist attacks by mining government databases and the personal records of people in the United States.” Cox remains a consultant to the NSA Advisory Board.

At the same time that Hayden was  engaging his NSA charm offensive against Enemy of the State in 1999, the agency was starting an aggressive privatization push, which accelerated following 9/11. Needing to hire more analysts and translators, they began contracting heavily from private companies like SAIC and Booz Allen Hamilton, the latter of which Snowden worked at for three months before leaking the PowerPoint slides that outline the siphoning of TeleCom and internet data.


While many of the actions performed by the super-spies in Enemy of the State are pure science-fiction, some are now plausible. An early sequence finds cherubic agent Jack Black pulling up Will Smith’s phone records and cross-checking them against his banking statements, and within seconds forging a link to an ex-flame of his played by Lisa Bonet. The NSA cannot listen in to the conversations of U.S. citizens, but it does suck in all the metadata of their phone calls, their number and duration. While American citizens’ metadata cannot legally be targeted as part of an investigation, it is still collected and stored, ready to be used if the secret rulings of the FISA court ever deem it necessary.

It is President Obama’s contention that collecting this metadata is part of the balance of privacy and security, but that listening in to conversations is the bright line that cannot be crossed. The metadata, though, has an enormous explanatory power of its own, and combined with the NSA’s power to search credit card and bank records, can sketch an entire life. At Foreign Policy Shane Harris notes that “a study in the journal Nature found that as few as four ‘spatio-temporal points,’ such as the location and time a phone call was placed, is enough to determine the identity of the caller 95 percent of the time.”


Will Smith is able to escape the dragnet due to the help of ex-NSA hand Gene Hackman (there are many nods to his role in paranoid surveillance classic The Conversation). It is unclear what help Edward Snowden will receive, aside from legions of internet admirers. His closest analogue in the film is the environmental activist played by Jason Lee, who stumbles upon a government secret and scrambles to release it to the public before getting crushed by a commuter bus. Luckily for Snowden he is not inside a Tony Scott movie, but somewhere…else (he checked out of his Hong Kong hotel today, his current whereabouts are unknown).

The video interview hosted at The Guardian is a fascinating object, hermetic in form but expansive in implication. Conducted by Glenn Greenwald and directed by Laura Poitras (whose forthcoming untitled whistleblower doc has already achieved legendary status), it opens with a scenic picture of lolling boats in Hong Kong harbor. It’s a dis-establishing shot, since Snowden’s specific whereabouts are to remain hidden. When he appears he is a talking head, the back of which is reflected in a nearby mirror. He looks pasty and unshaven, rather the IT stereotype of a denizen of dark rooms. He speaks in calm, even tones, whether about his disillusionment with and deception of the surveillance state, or his fears of government reprisal. It is impossible to glean anything of an inner life, but it is curious that he is speaking at all, considering his stated claim of keeping attention off himself and onto changing U.S. policies. His appearance has deflected debate of this country’s privacy laws, diverted into drive-by psychologial evaluations of Snowden and attempts to identify the girlfriend he left behind (I won’t link to that), and recent polls show that 56% of the U.S. population approves of the NSA’s actions.  But there are promises of more leaks, and I’m sure Jerry Bruckheimer is takings notes for the Enemy of the State sequel to come.


January 25, 2011


Two reviled flops from 20th Century Fox have finally made their way to DVD on the brave shoulders of the Shout! Factory label. Charles Grodin adapted and starred in the heist film 11 Harrowhouse after the  success of his turn in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), only to be met with critical and audience indifference. Lucky Lady is the more infamous failure, the product of agent-turned-producer Michael Gruskoff’s ability to game the Hollywood system (both DVDs come out next Tuesday, February 1st.). Formerly the representative for screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, he bought the rights to their script for $75,000, and then sold it to Fox for $450,000. An impressive profit over the 10% he previously made from their services. By investing that kind of scratch, Fox had to inflate the story into a blockbuster, signing up Liza Minnelli, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds to star, and Stanley Donen to direct. It received vitriolic reviews, many noting Gruskoff’s ploy, and failed to make a profit (although Jonathan Rosenbaum indignantly reported in Movie Wars that it came close, with $12,107,000 in rentals, a half-million less than its budget, due to Fox’s forcing theaters to keep it for extended runs if they wanted it at all.)

Despite all of these shady backdoor dealings, I rather enjoyed both of them, the “bumbling and stupid romp” (Pauline Kael, New Yorker) 11 Harrowhouse and the “mirthless trumpery” (John Simon, NY Mag) of Lucky Lady. Seeing them outside the torrent of negative publicity both received upon their initial release, it’s easier to judge them on their own limited but amiable merits.

11 Harrowhouse was based on a novel of the same name by Gerald A. Browne, for which Grodin received the ambiguous “adapted by” credit, while Jeffrey Bloom is named as the screenwriter. It’s unclear how much input he had into Bloom’s script, but it at least indicates his investment in the material. Directing duties were handed to Aram Avakian, who had filmed another comic heist, Cops and Robbers, in 1973. Harrowhouse is deeply marked by Grodin’s laconic personality, delivered through his sarcastic voice-over that coolly belittles the events on-screen. It’s an odd distancing device that was apparently removed from some home video releases, turning it into a more conventional thriller. The new Shout! Factory DVD contains the original voice-over, thankfully, and the video transfer is strong. The original film element shows some wear, and the colors are slightly faded, but it shows nice texture and sharpness, probably the best it could look with the material they had. The only extra is the theatrical trailer.

Grodin plays Howard Chesser, a small-time gem trader hired by business tycoon Clyde Massey (Trevor Howard) to steal an enormous cache of uncut diamonds in London. With the help of his scrappy heiress girlfriend Maren (Candice Bergen) and Watts, their man on the inside (James Mason), they engineer a robbery of Rube Goldberg-esque intricacy. The owner of the fleeced diamond exchange, the fastidious Meecham (John Gielgud), is understandably peeved, and Chesser and Maren try to escape with the jewels and their lives.

The material is not a good fit for Grodin’s deadpan sad sack routine, which is presumably why the caustic voice-over was added. But the narration is so cutting it undermines the usual genre pleasures of the heist film. When Chesser’s voice drops out and the narrative picks up, the jaunty tone disappears and we’re back inside the thriller mechanics, which Avakian runs through at a dulled pace. This tension between tones drains the film of any suspense, as we are now viewing the actions through Chesser’s retrospective disdain. It’s an odd, discomfiting viewing experience, an experiment in POV that implodes its own narrative.

But there is plenty to savor amid the debris (see the grizzled faces above). While Grodin and Bergen both seem cold and affected for their supposedly suave characters, the supporting cast is superb. The three Brits inject reptilian evil (Gielgud), blowhard narcissism (Howard) and a weary nihilism (Mason) into their preciously scant screen time. These are actors who can evoke entire backstories with an inching up of an eyebrow. Mason’s aging diamond appraiser quietly shuffles off with the film, secreting tragedy in the midst of the procedural. Watts has been under the employ of Gielgud’s Meecham and suffered his silent censures, whether dismissive hand waves or a skeptical lip curl, for a lifetime. Mason is a mound of regret, with a slightly haunched back and a slow-motion manner. The way in which he delicately eats a sandwich in a secret meeting with Grodin expresses everything about him – his professionalism and exactitude as well as his fatalism, as  might be the last lunch he ever has. (Reviewers of the time also singled out Mason’s performance, including Kael, Stanley Kaufmann, and the NY Times’ Nora Sayre).

No saving graces were allowed for Stanley Donen’s Lucky Lady:

Pauline Kael: “an agent’s picture – everybody’s rip-off” (compiled in When the Lights Go Down)

Jonathan Rosenbaum: “conspicuously overproduced and under-nourished.” (quoted in Movie Wars)

Vincent Canby: “it’s ridiculous without the compensation of being funny or fun.” (NY Times)

The ever-misogynistic John Simon:  “As for Miss Minnelli, she is herself a perfect menage a trois in which lack of talent, lack of looks, and lack of a speaking voice co-habit blissfully. Donen sensibly concentrates on her best feature, her legs, but he unfortunately can’t wrap them around her face.” (New York Magazine, Dec. 29th, 1975)

And yet, I found it companionable and amusing, despite the vaseline-gauzed cinematography and the cramped framings necessitated by shooting everything on real boats at sea (it is, in terms of press, the Waterworld of its time). According to one of the two promotional shorts included on the DVD, the production took “a full year to make”, because of the stars’ schedules and the endless problems of shooting on rocking vintage boats. Fox also required re-shoots to include a happy ending (as Joe Baltake outlines here). But as important as production history is to criticism, it is no substitute, and I found Donen’s disaster to be a rather fleet and funny (albeit over-designed) vehicle that teased out the idiosyncracies of his actors.

Liza Minnelli (as Claire, a flapper), Burt Reynolds (as Walker, the dandy) and Gene Hackman (as Kibby, the hobo wiseacre) start up a rum-running business during Prohibition, running their boats up from Mexico. This cuts into the mob’s market, and soon they’re in a shooting war over territory.

The script is slangy and self-conscious without being arch, a pastiche of Jazz Age argot that the actors are able to thrum to life. The set-design is overstuffed art-deco, suffocating the already cramped spaces Donen has to work in, and the decision to use heavy soft-focus filters throughout the film is a failed attempt to go nostalgic, ladling every image over with a soupy haze (the DP was Geoffrey Unsworth, who also shot Liza in Cabaret).

In and around these production snafus the actors excel. Minnelli, the critics punching bag, is quite touching here as the dizzy dame love interest of both leads. Minnelli plays Claire, the intended bombshell, more like an antic Jean Arthur than the Harlow clearly intended. She’s the feather boa-clad ball of energy bouncing off the deft comic work of Burt Reynolds, who exhibits his flair for self-deprecating slapstick (Another bizarre John Simon sidebar, on Reynolds:  “[his] face looks like an armored car made, inexplicably, out of meat.” If someone can parse this, please let me know). Hackman has the knockabout trickster role, the gruff kind of asshole he could play in his rum-induced sleep. Together they form an improbably fun trio, and form one of the few successful polyamorous relationships on film.

The DVD of Lucky Lady is a fine anamorphic presentation, the soft image resulting from the original material (it’s remarked upon in the original reviews). The two vintage featurettes feature interviews with the cast and crew, and there are three theatrical and TV trailers.