ENEMIES OF THE STATE – Review by Pam Grady

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Director Sonia Kennebeck and producer Ines Hofmann Kanna have made whistleblowers the focus of their work, beginning with 2016’s National Bird, in which veterans of the US drone program laid bare the ugly reality of remote warfare. Next up for the pair is “=The United States vs. Reality Winner, which delves into the case of the young National Security Agency contractor convicted of leaking classified documents to The Intercept news outlet. In between these two fairly straightforward stories is Enemies of the State and the strange tale of Matt DeHart, whose tale of government persecution is narrative quicksand. Wisely, the filmmakers stage this odd saga as a kind of documentary thriller, complete with reenactments, that leave the viewer to try to tease out the truth of the matter.

DeHart’s story predates those of more high-profile whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Winner. In the story largely told by his parents Matt and Leann, the younger DeHart came to the attention of the government, thanks to his activities with a group involved in disseminating information to Wikileaks and the like and his management of a computer serve used to pass on information. In particular, one particular piece of information that implicated the CIA in a notorious crime and the FBI in its cover up came into Matt’s possession that made him a particular problem for the government.

That Matt DeHart was a National Guard intelligence analyst and that he was following in the footsteps of his parents whose military service was also wrapped up with intelligence work adds verisimilitude to his claims. But the story gets wilder and wilder with trips to foreign embassies and Canada in attempts to evade the law and the claim of torture and forced medication during a stay in a New England jail.

There is also no solid evidence of any of the DeHarts’ more outrageous claims. He says he destroyed his server’s hard drive and damning evidence he claims he had is no longer in his possession. (And if this incendiary info that he claims to have gotten came from somebody – why in all the years since has this huge scandal never emerged?) And when the long arm of the feds finally catch up with Matt, it is not espionage or anything involving state secrets with which he is charged, instead the kind of crime for which it is impossible to work up any sympathy for him. His parents claim it is all a scheme to discredit him, but why? Why treat Matt DeHart any differently than Manning, Snowden, or Winner?

Listening to the DeHarts talk about their son is a little bit like being trapped in a fun house maze of mirrors. Their story is so convoluted and their paranoia so high that parsing truth from fiction is a challenge. Their conviction that their child is innocent is absolute, but is it that they simply take his word? Did they really see the damning evidence against the government that Matt claims he had? Or is this some sad folie a trois, a delusion shared between the three of them?

On the other side of the scale, other than the investigator and prosecutor of the case for which Matt was eventually charged, no one from the government weighs in to even deny its part in the story. Various attorneys who represented Matt; investigative reporter Adrian Humphreys of Toronto’s National Post newspaper, who has written about Matt’s case and interviewed the DeHarts; and McGill University anthropology professor Gabriella Coleman, who is an expert on Anonymous and has discussed Matt’s case with the DeHarts add their observations of the case.

Enemies of the State limns a story that gets murkier and murkier. Kennebeck lays out the facts as clearly as possible. She uses actors to recreate some of the action. In court cases where audio recordings were available, actors lip synch the proceedings to stunning effect. The recreations add suspense and impact to the tale. They also portray what happened (or maybe didn’t) in a way that makes following all the twists and turns of a fantastic plot far clearer than a more traditional documentary approach would have done.
This is surely not what the filmmakers signed up for when they decided to delve into Matt DeHart’s story, but Kennebeck and her team have enough confidence to lay out the story in all of its intricate confusion. It is up to us to decide the truth of the matter or if there is even any truth to be had in this odd but riveting tale.

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Pam Grady

Pam Grady is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, FilmStew, SF State Magazine and other publications. Her career began at Reel.com where she was an editor and staff critic. She is currently President of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle.