'Enemies of the State': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Enemies of the State - Publicity still - H 2020
Codebreaker Films
Provocative and disturbing.

'National Bird' director Sonia Kennebeck delves into the case of a hacker's alleged persecution by the U.S. government.

Befitting a documentary executive produced by Errol Morris, Enemies of the State is polished, assured and chilling. But as director Sonia Kennebeck traces a tale of hacker culture, government surveillance and extreme family loyalty, the smooth surface buckles. Paranoia and unreliable narrators begin to dominate the disquieting mix, and the viewer starts to question how and why the story is being told. That uncertainty is the film's primary, illuminating strength, exposing built-in biases (ours as well as those of onscreen figures) and underscoring the dangerous internet-age velocity with which one person's conspiracy charges can turn into a seemingly righteous cause.

The cause in this twisting, decade-long series of events is that of Matt DeHart, celebrated by some — complete with fundraising merch — as a whistleblower in the good fight against covert, anti-free-speech government activity. A digital native with definite ties to gaming and vaguely delineated connections to hacktivist collective Anonymous and WikiLeaks, DeHart claimed that the FBI framed him, harassed his family and tortured him in pursuit of classified information that crossed his screen when he ran a darknet server. After law enforcement ransacked the Indiana home where he lived with his parents, DeHart said they were looking for top-secret files relating to a shocking CIA operation; the authorities said they were looking for child pornography.

Leann and Paul DeHart, with their down-home embrace of God and country, are not people you'd expect to slip across the border under cover of night, as they did in April 2013 with their son, seeking asylum in Canada. Paul is a minister, and they're both veterans of military intelligence. So too is Matt, although his career was curtailed by mental health issues. The couple speak openly to the filmmaker, distraught over their son's treatment at the hands of authorities and stressing the need to watch the watchers. They believe Matt unequivocally. "We raised him to think critically," says Paul, who once drove his son to the Russian and Venezuelan embassies in Washington so that he could try to defect.

A crucial thumb drive goes missing, and only some of the troubling aspects of DeHart's case are substantiated, but given an already well-documented history of government abuses and dirty tactics against activists, his complaints draw the alarmed interest of experts, a number of whom appear in the film. They include a McGill professor, an investigative reporter, and a fascinating assortment of attorneys who run the gamut in terms of point of view.

Kennebeck talks briefly, and revealingly, to old friends of DeHart, some from his school days. Several of them try to put an amusing, benign slant on his behavior — one compares him to Leave It to Beaver troublemaker Eddie Haskell — but the picture that emerges is a disturbing one: telling glimpses of a self-dramatizing manipulator, lending further fuel to the "who to believe" fire.

Nagging questions percolate as the doc moves back and forth through the timeline: Are the national security case and the child porn case parallel or connected? Focusing at first on the espionage angle, Enemies of the State seems for a while to push aside the pornography charges as pure fabrication, as do the DeHarts. In Tennessee, yet another location in this multi-state, international saga, a prosecutor and a detective remain quietly unshakable in their conviction that Matt DeHart is a predatory pedophile.

In addition to the film's new interviews and footage of the family, Kennebeck stages re-creations of key events, in particular legal hearings on both sides of the border that use actual audio: The actors' lips move, convincingly, but the voices we hear belong to their real-life counterparts. Much of the new material is cast in a frosty blue palette that emphasizes the institutional layers of bureaucracy and stealth.

In her 2016 drone-warfare documentary, National Bird, Kennebeck chronicled whistleblowers; here her central protagonist lodges complaints that relate chiefly to his personal treatment and only in the broadest sense to a larger political picture. Pitting the heavy cloak of government secrecy against the openness of a mother and father, Enemies of the State certainly doesn't answer every question it poses, but it's a wake-up call for all of us keep asking them — of government, of public figures, and of ourselves.

Production companies: Codebreaker Films
Director: Sonia Kennebeck
Producers: Ines Hofmann Kanna, Sonia Kennebeck
Executive producer: Errol Morris
Director of photography: Torsten Lapp
Editor: Maxine Goedicke
Composer: Insa Rudolph
Casting directors: Erica Hart, Maren Poitras
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: Submarine

104 minutes