When a criminal trial plays out in the court of public opinion, nuance is often lost amid shocking headlines, bombastic pundits, and protest poster slogans. Right or wrong, truth or lies becomes painted in terms of black and white. In great true crime documentaries, filmmakers dig past what we think we know to the narratives ignored, the uncomfortable facts overlooked, and the gray area that can make for uneasy conclusions. Regrettably, Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of The State falls short of greatness by failing to paint a full picture of its tricky topic.
Warning this review contains spoilers, including some disturbing details of the Matt DeHart case.
Directed by Kennebeck, Enemies of The State discloses the scandalous story of the DeHart family, who fled the United States to keep their adult son out of prison. Their story begins in 2010, when 25-year-old hacker Matt DeHart’s online activities led to authorities raiding their family home. From there, two very different depictions of Matt DeHart arose. To his parents, he is an activist slandered by the government for his ties to the hacker group Anonymous and the potentially damaging files he uncovered. To the prosecutors, he’s a sexual predator who used online gaming to target young boys.
Kennebeck interviews parents, police, prosecutors, and members of the press to parse what is real, what is conjecture, and what is a cover-up. The DeHart family is passionate in their defense of their son, insisting that all the child pornography charges are trumped up to destroy Matt because of his hacktivism. Their tearful confessions speak of his fears, childhood, and the alleged government secrets he possessed. Kennebeck gives the DeHarts plenty of room and the aid of re-enactments to bring their argument to life, as well as the opportunity to question the prosecution’s case against their son. Then, she shares the prosecution’s side. Almost immediately, the DeHart family’s story begins to fall apart.
Do you already distrust the U.S. government, CIA, FBI, and police for a litany of documented abuses of power enacted against those they are intended to serve? If so, the DeHart’s story may seem plausible if not probable. However, to believe the entirety of it, you also must believe that three boys and their families chose to lie on the record to bring down a hacker who never actually leaked any of the government secrets he claims to possess. Kennebeck doesn’t push this issue on the family. Instead, she cedes the spotlight to the prosecutors and press who know this case in ways the DeHarts cannot, in part because of privacy laws that protect the victims. This side lacks the tearful talking heads of the first half, offering in its place timelines, witness statements, and bizarre phonecalls traced back to Matt.
These revelations lead Enemies of the State to a curious place, where the mystery is not whether he is guilty but who the hell is this guy? To his parents, he is a rebel and hero, wrongfully maligned. To the courts, he is a convicted criminal who used his hacker persona to garner public support. To the press, he is a strange fascination. It feels time to have him speak for himself. Thus, the whole film boils down to its biggest interview, that of Matt DeHart.
As the doc begins to tease this sitdown, true-crime fans might think back on similar big moments: conman Billy McFarland taking the hotseat for the Fyre Fest doc, the jailhouse phone calls of Tiger King, the bizarre burping sequence of The Jinx. However, Kennebeck pulls the rug out from under her audience, revealing Matt DeHart never showed for their big day. She cuts from the build-up to an empty seat and a title card.
Without this interview, the doc never truly comes together. It fails to deliver on the destination promised. Enemies of the State lures you in with access to both sides of this strange case, looping in national security, international infamy, child pornography charges, and conspiracy theories. Then, as the dust begins to settle on its journey, it teases the catharsis of making its mystery man sit down and explain himself. But he won’t.
Enemies of the State is frustrating not because it cannot give us a straight answer on who Matt DeHart is. Even if he had sat before the camera, there’s no guarantee he’d answer Kennebeck’s questions or deliver a burp-laden confession. But without him, the film feels starkly unfinished. It’s as if Kennebeck built a house, but once you swing wide the front door, you see there’s a big hole where the floor should be. As is, Enemies of the State leaves us staring at the hole, wondering what the hell we came here for.
Enemies of The State made its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10-19. For more on how you can participate, visit the TIFF website.
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Header Image Source: TIFF