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Review: The twist and turns of ‘Enemies of the State’ form a narrative for our fraught times

A man looks out of a car's backseat window.
Joel Widman as Matt DeHart in a reenacted scene in the documentary “Enemies of the State.”
(IFC Films)

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The Oscar Wilde quote about truth that Sonia Kennebeck offers up at the top of her chilling documentary “Enemies of the State” is telling. So is the name young Air National Guard veteran and gamer/hacktivist Matt DeHart gave the secret server he used in 2009 to allegedly provide cover to information-transparency advocates. So apparently is the disappearance of flash drives that DeHart and his ex-military parents say will explain why the U.S. government has persecuted him for going on 10 years now, ever since the family’s Indiana home was raided in January 2010.

But when I describe these as “telling,” they aren’t necessarily so when first encountered. That’s because the story Kennebeck unfolds through a mix of interviews, reporting and the judicious re-creation of court transcripts using actors is one you’ll want to go over again at various points. The case of Matt DeHart is that complicated, especially when it seems like it isn’t. If one were to imagine Errol Morris (one of the executive producers) being jealous of another filmmaker’s dive into the known and unknown, it’d have to be the thicket of facts, conspiracy and manipulation that is “Enemies of the State.”

What do you believe the U.S. government is willing to do to keep its secrets from being splayed all over the Internet? Kennebeck, whose doc forte is such secret-keeping (and spilling) — evidenced by her drone exposé “National Bird” and this year’s yet-to-be-distributed “United States vs. Reality Winner” — initially unravels the timeline of DeHart’s troubling experience with the cool, logical grimness of one more cautionary Chelsea Manning/Edward Snowden/Aaron Swartz tale whereby a righteous leaker is tarred as the criminal.

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As told by Matt DeHart’s minister dad, Paul, and devoted mom, Leann — self-described “patriots” — it was their son’s affiliation with hacker group Anonymous and support for WikiLeaks, and one mysterious classified data dump to his server, that made a target of their smart, computer-savvy, conscientious son. Paul DeHart describes the feeling after their house was tossed by law enforcement — the search warrant was a child pornography charge out of Tennessee — as looking down at one’s chest and seeing a laser pointed at it. It’s one reason he was willing to drive Matt to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to seek political asylum. In 2013, the family sought refugee status in Canada under the conventions against torture.

Interviewees sympathetic to Matt DeHart’s ordeal are all over “Enemies”: an academic whose expertise is Anonymous; Matt’s cybercrime lawyer; and a rigorous journalist who interviewed Matt during his Canadian house arrest and made his case a multipart series. The FBI wouldn’t cooperate. Hmm, one thinks. But two investigators who did get interviewed are the detective and attorney overseeing the child pornography case in Tennessee that ultimately resulted in a conviction, and their calmness throughout as they defend their procedures and evidence makes for a curious counterpoint to the grand tale DeHart’s parents convincingly give of a smear campaign by a punitive, desperate U.S. government.

Kennebeck’s handling of the labyrinthine narrative is commendable, particularly since the realigning she needs to do in the final act requires a deft touch, like changing the flavor of a dish already prepped, spiced and cooked. Eventually, though, “Enemies” has to convey not just the odyssey of Matt DeHart but the story behind that odyssey, and it’s a credit to an advocacy-minded documentarian like Kennebeck that she addresses what can’t be ignored about a case tailor-made for the kind of issue-driven spotlight she knows how to provide.

That makes “Enemies of the State” an exquisitely thorny investigation for these times, when transparency is most needed, obfuscation reigns, and our ability to process today’s reality is more fraught than ever.

'Enemies of the State'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Starts July 30, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Town Center, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; also on VOD


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