TIFF: Was Anonymous hactivist Matt DeHart a sex criminal or a victim of an FBI cover-up? This documentary isn’t so sure.
“Enemies of the State” burrows so deep into the perspectives of its unreliable narrators that it often becomes one. Director Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary tracks the bizarre saga of Anonymous hacktivist Matt DeHart, who was convicted of child pornography charges that he and his family denied. At the age of 25, the former Air National Guard serviceman claimed he had uncovered government secrets so damning the FBI invented other crimes to take him down. Kennebeck’s haunting, enigmatic approach to revisiting these claims borrows executive producer Errol Morris’ labyrinthine style to play up the peculiar nature of DeHart’s odyssey, only to find convincing evidence that he’s probably full of it. The movie walks a jagged line between conflicting sources, and overplays some of the more outrageous claims to the detriment of the trenchant investigation at its core. However, Kennebeck still musters a fascinating and provocative study of today’s misinformation age simply by adopting its elusive terms.
At first blush, the charges against DeHart are straightforward enough. In 2010, agents burst into the Indiana home he shared with his parents, Paul and Leann, arresting him for allegedly coaxing underage victims into sharing videos of themselves online. DeHart, whom documents claimed to have found victims through World of Warcraft, posed as the son of a crime boss. But DeHart and his parents claim those accusations were invented, that the FBI actually accused him of leaking information to the Russians, and the classified documents he discovered were so incriminating that agents actually injected him with a crude truth serum to get him to talk.
According to the DeHarts, these traumatic events left them so rattled that when DeHart was released on bond 21 months later, they decided to flee to Canada. From there, Hart’s story became an international media sensation and Anonymous supporters used the #FreeMattDeHart campaign to turn him into a folk hero with mixed results. He went back to jail in 2015 and stayed there another four years. While he never sits down with the filmmakers, his voice is present throughout, alongside recollections from his colorful midwestern parents as they proclaim his innocence. A working familiarity with the language of the true crime drama would suggest that “Enemies of the State” believes their tale, but their version of events grows murkier as the movie goes on — and eventually flies off the deep-end with a revelation halfway through.
At one point, DeHart’s animated lawyer Tor Ekeland says that explaining the circumstances behind DeHart’s prosecution requires buying into ludicrous internet conspiracy theories a veteran corporate lawyer from Wall Street like himself couldn’t possibly believe. Before that irony settles in, “Enemies of the State” reveals the contents of those classified documents, which revolve around a far-fetched post-9/11 conspiracy theory so inane it might make Edward Snowden balk. That theory, spoken aloud by Leann and then abandoned, seems so implausible that even acknowledging its existence risks giving it too much power. By revealing it and then moving on, the movie does a disservice to both ends of the equation.
That issue overshadows some of the more probing, research-driven moments throughout. “Enemies of the State” is both intriguing and confused as it maps out the story of a sex criminal whose family used conspiracy theories to bury his crime, reaching its scariest moment when it seems willing to believe some of the lies at play. It isn’t a referendum on the truth so much as a cinematic embodiment of the ambiguities that have swirled around this case and continue to fuel a complex internet-based drama. However, the filmmaker has done strong work where it counts, eventually managing to dispel DeHart’s claims of innocence through hard evidence and to confront several of the people who believe him. Laced together with a hyperbolic score, “Enemies of the State” works through a familiar routine that has riveted audiences ever since “The Thin Blue Line” (and found new legs with “The Jinx”), even as it attempts to deconstruct that approach to turn the tables on the apparent victim.
Kennebeck gets a little carried away with all the devices at hand, including courtroom reenactments that find actors lip-syncing to real audio (a discombobulated effect exploited to more refined ends in Clio Barnard’s “The Arbor”) and sometimes delivering stagey monologues that fail to convince. But it’s fascinating and fun to watch some of the subjects convinced of DeHart’s innocence confront new information in real-time as the nature of their delusion settles in. These days, that’s a familiar experience for many of us, and “Enemies of the State” works best when it investigates the nature of truth at a moment when it’s all too easy to obscure it.
The movie falls short of exploring the roots of DeHart’s connections to the so-called dark web, which Alex Winter’s 2015 documentary “Deep Web” laid out in more informative straightforward terms. “Enemies of the State” attempts a more circuitous route, with cinematic results worthy of scrutiny even if they don’t always hold together. Kennebeck uses all the hallmarks of Morris’ storytelling approach, especially the awe-inspiring music and eccentric characters who are both unconvincing and in charge of the story. Yet it struggles to establish the bigger picture at hand. Time and again, we’re treated to inserts explaining everyone who declined to comment — the Russian embassy, the Venezuelan embassy, the National Guard, and of course the FBI. That’s all well and good for the purposes of journalistic accountability, but the way they’re inserted into the drama, they serve as recurring reminders of the narrow resources at hand. With few dissenters available, “Enemies of the State” mostly turns on the parents’ blind rage.
“Enemies of the State” makes for an arresting window into the way dueling stories can obscure fact-based analysis, but stumbles when it feels compelled to overemphasize this point. (Another lawyer basically explains all of this to the filmmakers in a blunt monologue during the closing minutes, just in case you missed the point somewhere along the way.) Kennebeck has done an extraordinary job of uncovering details pertaining to DeHart’s case that many earlier reports failed to include. Its most searing observation comes from one investigator, who claims that supporters of DeHart have made life so much worse for his alleged victim. The creepiest aspect of “Enemies of the State” is that, no matter the intentions at hand, it may fall prey to the same ruse.
“Enemies of the State” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
Originally published: 2020-09-10 18:33:08