This article supplements Slate’s Conspiracy Thrillers Movie Club. To learn more and to join, visit Slate.com/thrillers.
Excerpted from Surveillance Cinema by Catherine Zimmer. Reprinted with permission from NYU Press.
Most generally but most straightforwardly, surveillance narratives relying heavily on satellite and GPS imagery indicate the place surveillance technologies have come to hold in the formations of geopolitics, particularly through the integration of system and subject. This integration can be traced directly to the manner in which surveillance is incorporated into a film’s storyline, but, perhaps more importantly, also to its increasingly privileged place as an aspect of cinematic continuity systems. What one finds in films that incorporate locative technology and satellite imaging is that both systems serve dual and interrelated purposes: to visually establish an individual subject from a great distance, and to find a technological means within the narrative for motivating crosscutting between shots that construct elaborate plot connections between spaces, people, events, and actions. Whether they include a liberal surface critique of surveillance in their narrative, or unabashedly celebrate the spectacle of global surveillance, such films work to legitimize that caricatured element of the “world image.”
There are myriad examples: In the seminal example of such films, Enemy of the State, the numerous shots coded as satellite images, targeting the protagonist from high above, visually situate him in a variety of complex urban spaces. These shots are then “put into play” as they are crosscut with shots of the satellites themselves in orbit, the satellite operation center, and other figures in the political drama that unfolds.
GPS imaging, a digitally animated rendering of a figure in a given space enabled by satellite locative technologies, serves a similar purpose in these narratives, and is used both alongside and interchangeably with satellite photography. The image, though this time arguably more mediated by digital animation than photographic images, is designed to show a point on a map from above. These data visualizations appear in the same cinematic genre and with an almost identical narrative function as the satellite photography—to visually pinpoint a singular figure within a broad narrative and visual context—and thus GPS also provides a tie between the general and the particular, an individual body and a system. Satellite and GPS images often serve the function of establishing shots, providing the context for the individual storylines that will develop either within the entire film, or within the scene that shot is establishing. Here, however, the establishing shot is a continuous presence, insistently tying the individual’s image and action to its context—a context that includes not just the space the satellite provides an image of, but the space that includes the satellite—a world system in which satellite technologies have an integral part, both symbolic and literal. The cinematic satellite image is, like many surveillance moments within these narratives, a type of point-of-view shot—an image that, insofar as it is highlighted as a technologized vision set apart from the other cinematic images, insistently refers back to itself as much as it refers to the objects it provides images of.
The satellite and GPS images within these films also clearly function as a narrative device, a technique that motivates crosscutting or establishes other cinematic forms of narrative connectivity. The satellite or GPS image almost never exists as a signifying image in and of itself; instead it is used as a mode of producing narrative relationality across very broad fields, and almost inevitably, in a manner that highlights the individual as a geopolitical subject. Most frequently and simply, this will take the form of a chase scene, in which we see not only what is happening on the ground but also the third and broader term in the chase—the larger agency monitoring and directing the chase through satellite and GPS, an agency that represents the broader political context of the smaller, individual actions below. Within these scenes, the surveillant image and the surveilling agency are frequently the narrative touchstone, the fulcrum of the scene, as much if not more than the protagonist (who is rarely aligned with the surveillant gaze) and in this way, we see the further invitation to the film’s spectators to identify themselves with both the system of surveillance and a globalizing visual logic, even as they are also identified with a character subjected to that system.
The fact that the great majority of scenes utilizing satellite and GPS are chase scenes that culminate in destruction and often death (though rarely of the protagonist) is crucial to understanding exactly what kind of global system this is: All the films use surveillance technology that visualizes “location” in such a way that it serves as a narrative and stylistic pivot that constructs relationships among individual bodies, inter- and transnational spaces, and broad global systems through economies of violence. The agency and world citizenship of the protagonists of current political action-thrillers is offered only in relation to a violent targeting, even as they gain increased value within a larger symbolic economy of “global” politics. The frequent result is that these films follow both a narrative and spatial trajectory that frequently establishes Americans as geopolitical subjects through monitored immersion in globalized urban locations.
Enemy of the State, as suggested above, has come to serve as the model for more recent films that incorporate satellite imaging as an integral part of the narrative, and Tony Scott (before his suicide in 2012) was becoming somewhat of a surveillance auteur, continuing these themes and aesthetics in the 2006 action-sci-fi-terrorism-thriller Déjà vu. Enemy of the State tells the fictionalized story of the political intrigue surrounding a bill that allows the U.S. government broad powers of surveillance, pitting corrupt National Security Agency leadership against resistant members of Congress and unwitting citizens. The political tale is told through the filter of one of these citizens, a labor attorney played by Will Smith. With the casting of Smith, Enemy of the State establishes itself as an action-based political film with a personality-based narrative, even before the narrative unfolds. While it is “set” entirely within the U.S., both the political stakes around national security and the use of GPS and satellite within the narrative make this a film that presents domestic concerns (in a number of senses) as on the cusp of global political significance.
Smith’s character, Robert Dean, finds himself by pure happenstance at the center of this intrigue when an old college buddy surreptitiously drops a computer disk into Dean’s shopping bag as he runs for his life. The disk contains surveillance footage of a congressman’s murder, which Dean’s friend, a wildlife researcher, captured unintentionally with a hidden camera intended to record birds. This series of purely accidental encounters results in a large-scale manhunt (already begun with the chase of the friend who slips the disk to Dean), with the massive technological and political power of the NSA unleashed upon Dean by those responsible for the videotaped murder. The narrative is organized around Dean’s discovery that he is being tracked and then targeted, followed by his attempts to extricate himself from the multiple “framings” used against him as weapons: The constant visual frames of the surveillance he is now under, and the information technology-enabled frame-up in which his professional, financial, and personal life are destroyed such that he will have no credibility should he go public with the video.
By using the NSA’s access to massive amounts of personal data as the method of targeting Dean alongside its elaborate geo-surveillance operation, the film already effectively elides any distinction between its surveillance system and the myriad economic and social systems through which daily life functions in the contemporary United States. Here, Enemy of the State suggests the dependence of a subject’s position on the “correct” functioning of multiple systems (computer systems, legal systems, financial systems, etc.), which a surveillant narrative structure produces as integrated and thus unstable—a threat to one’s very identity. Ultimately, the film goes to great lengths to demonstrate how an individual’s life, in this case bourgeois domestic life in particular, is inextricably linked to geopolitical concerns; in no uncertain terms, it also makes clear that the tie that binds these realms is a network of surveillance systems.
Similarly to the visual system described above, in which the pinpointing of an individual is tied to a representation of global totality through satellite imaging, Enemy of the State insists that the political debates about national security versus individual rights come down to a question of how much one’s domestic space can and should be put into relationship with national security practices and geopolitical systems. The increasing intrusion of the NSA into Dean’s life also involves the revelation of his marital problems resulting from a prior affair, and the film moves frequently back and forth between his domestic space and his implication in the political conspiracy. The suggestions of marital difficulty are themselves heavily interspersed with clear visual and narrative representations of an upper-middle-class couple very much in love and happy in the domestic space that they share with their young son. As the surveillance is ratcheted up, the fallout from his infidelity is reactivated and his marriage and domestic life are destabilized; the plot thread in which he evades surveillance, clears his name, and manages to expose the government figures targeting him is joined with the plot thread in which he reconnects with his wife and re-establishes domestic propriety and happiness.
In and of itself, this is unremarkable—surveillance films are certainly not the only Hollywood narratives in which the establishment or re-establishment of a heterosexual union is provided as the corollary resolution to a parallel or primary narrative thread. As has been argued in numerous contexts, this is the very lifeblood of classical Hollywood narrative. The particular insistence on this formula in this context is notable more for the significance that “intimate,” domestic space comes to hold in a film that is on every other level concerned with presenting as broad an aesthetic and narrative as possible. Unlike the films of the 1970s and 1980s, which feature usually unmarried and often antisocial protagonists attempting to uncover a vast political system, the otherwise paranoid political vision of Enemy of the State returns to a more classical Hollywood formula. The film’s structure and its reliance on heterosexual monogamy to define both discord and resolution imply that geopolitical stakes are in some ways reducible to the domestic stakes of the bourgeois household.
To drive this point home (as it were), the film closes not with Dean’s successful escape from surveillance but instead with multiple formations of surveillant mediation “managed” within and by domesticity. The final scene presents Dean and his wife sitting on their couch watching television: They have exposed the “bad apples” in the U.S. government with the help of an ex-NSA operative now working as a surveillance expert, Edward Lyle (played by Gene Hackman in what is one of this film’s several references to the earlier canonical surveillance narrative, The Conversation). As they watch the political story from which they have now extricated themselves play out on their television, “resolution” here suggests a return to their proper roles as spectators. As Dean’s wife (also an attorney) shouts her critiques of governmental surveillance at the screen, he playfully turns her comments into a sexual innuendo, and the connection between their position as media consumers, the liberal critique of government overreach, and the stability of their upper-middle-class existence becomes synonymous with narrative resolution.
The scene continues with Dean flipping through the channels until he sees a live video image of himself, sitting and watching TV. Realizing that this surveillance shot is a perversely playful greeting from his mysterious ally, he responds conversationally to the television as Lyle communicates a message through a series of televised images. Rather than respond with outrage that Lyle has invaded his home, Dean merely teases him—“You are one sick man”—and accepts this “friendly” invasion of his privacy as humorous. The film closes with Dean’s television returning to its usual broadcast in the form of Larry King, who in 1998 was an iconic political talk show host, conducting a discussion about surveillance and national security, followed by a cut to the film’s final imagery: satellite photography of the globe—the “Earth-shot” Lisa Parks cites as the emblematic image of idealized globalization. King’s characteristic political narcissism provides the film’s concluding dialogue in voiceover: “You’ve got no right to come into my home.”
The contiguity offered between domestic space and global imaging is announced here with little subtlety: A final political comment provided by a televised media figure on the sanctity of domestic space, accompanied by an image of the globe, sets the terms fairly clearly. Even while the media provides critiques of surveillance culture, it is that same mediating presence that provides the link between the “world system” and individual subjects within it. By establishing both a visual and narrative continuity between the personal and the political, the singular and the total, the house and the globe, all through devices of surveillance and mediation, the film indicates that it is in some ways proper domestic work—and the task of the media consumer—to establish one’s place in the global system. The connection to legal and political debates about security versus privacy is clear, but what the film seems to suggest is that ultimately the privacy at stake is that of the liberal bourgeois subject who, even if his or her domestic life isn’t perfect, ultimately has “nothing to hide” and must, like Dean, merely accept with begrudging good humor the pervasiveness of surveillance as part of the economy of mediation in upper-middle-class America.
A reading of this film through its positioning of the ideal liberal bourgeois subject in a security state is bolstered by the casting of a black actor and celebrity, Will Smith, in the lead role. Beyond its function as a star vehicle for Smith, it is not inconsequential that a film about the unfair targeting of a black man by American surveillance and security operatives takes such pains to emphasize this targeting as an absolute, unequivocal coincidence. Both in the casting of Smith and the implicit reliance on his bankability as an action star, the film narrates the overreach of state surveillance in the 1990s in a framework that completely ignores and even puts under erasure the racial projects of American surveillance (and cinema): the racializing and profiling central to the policing of black populations, the Islamophobic securitization characteristic of the 1990s on through today, and countless others that have rendered the histories of surveillance inseparable from the histories of race in the United States. Instead, Smith is cast in a role that in today’s parlance would be referred to as “postracial” (in terms of both his upward career trajectory and his narrative function within the film), suggesting a significant disavowal at the heart of this critique of surveillance and an investment in the idea that this could happen to anyone (an idea that also has come to define contemporary forms of celebrity, especially as constructed by reality programming).
If we consider the film’s narrative formulation in relation to the stylistic constructions discussed earlier, what emerges is that Enemy of the State’s narrative efforts to establish the individual subject in relation to a global system do not ultimately serve to highlight the political implications and context of an otherwise individualized subject. Rather, they serve to eclipse historically embodied political experience, particularly as defined by racial identity, in favor of a liberal subject defined in relation to an aesthetic of geopolitics, an aesthetic produced through the incorporation of global imaging and information systems into cinematic continuity devices and broader media culture. This aesthetic in turn serves to centralize and privilege the place of the bourgeois media consumer even as that consumer is shown to be endangered by the very technologies that enable his or her position.