Presidents' sexual liaisons are surreptitiously taped by those who might be politically inspired. Video cameras are placed at key traffic intersections so police can keep an eye on the action, and they're also hidden in store ceilings and lurking at ATMs. Employers and others increasingly claim access to e-mail. Sales on the Internet potentially could offer illegal conduits to personal information.
"It's not paranoia if they're really after you," according to the tag line attached to "Enemy of the State," an engrossing if slick conspiracy thriller with a stellar cast. It's directed in whiz-bang fashion by Tony Scott and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who collaborated on "Crimson Tide" and "Top Gun."
That element of real-life fear -- over the steady encroachment of audio, visual and electronic monitoring of our lives -- gives extra juice to Scott's film, frontloaded with a dazzling array of high-tech communications hardware and chock full of references to "Blow Up," "The Conversation," "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Fugitive."
Comic actor Will Smith, impressively effective in his first dramatic role since "Six Degrees of Separation," plays Robert Clayton Dean, a likable, funny, well-to-do Washington, D.C., labor lawyer caught in a vortex of evil forces that are initially invisible.
Robert, married to the supportive Carla (Regina King) and the protective father of young Eric (Jascha Washington), has recently dodged the bullet of an irate mob boss (Tom Sizemore). While shopping at an upscale lingerie store -- with supermodels demonstrating the wares -- Robert becomes the unwitting recipient of a tape made by an environmentalist and old friend Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee).
Zavitz, whose name is no doubt meant to evoke that of JFK-assassination photographer Abraham Zapruder, has inadvertently documented the murder of a congressman (Jason Robards) by forces attached to National Security Agency honcho Thomas Brian Reynolds (a cool and frightening Jon Voight).
"Let's get into his life," declares Reynolds, who immediately rounds up an eager army of computer-nerd operatives -- including Loren Dean, Barry Pepper, Ian Hart and Jack Black -- to make Robert squirm until he leads them to the tape. Photos of an old girlfriend and important business contact (Lisa Bonet) are sent to the enraged Carla, a false story about mafioso connections is placed in the newspaper, and his credit cards are mysteriously frozen. Comic relief is offered by the peanut-gallery commentary of the folks in vans and back at NSA headquarters who are examining every detail of their victim's life.
Then arrives Brill (a ferocious Gene Hackman), a former NSA agent now hiding out in his own electronic lair and plotting some sort of revenge on his former employer. Brill, who initially perceives Dean as a threat, eventually warms to the hunted man, pointing out the bugs the attorney is carrying around -- cell phone, pager, shoes, watch, pants, pen -- and abetting escape from their mutual enemies. The pair also turns the tables, hooking their electronic tentacles into the life of a congressman (Stuart Wilson) allied with Reynolds.
"Enemy of the State," true to its action-film genre, is spiked with daring pedestrian, bicycle and car chases, an explosion or two, and bad guys coming out of the woodwork. But it's a cut above the competition, a brighter effort with something weightier on its mind.
"Privacy's been dead for 30 years because we can't risk it," Reynolds intones late in the film, during a tense standoff with Brill. "The only privacy left is the inside of your head." Maybe. Maybe not. But it sure is fun, following the lead of Scott and screenwriter David Marconi, to speculate about the ramifications of such a crisis.