Why don’t Americans trust their Government? I

“Enemy of the State” (1998, dir. Tony Scott[1]). The NSA has been pressing for legislation that will allow it to slip the leash, but a Congressman is in the way. A top NSA official organizes his killing—meant to look like a suicide—only to discover that a remote camera dedicated to another, innocuous purpose, recorded the killing. HA! The hunt for the video record is on. The wildlife observer who had set up the remote camera—this is hilarious: he is astonished to find that government officials in a democracy are just as savage as wolves in the wild—ends up dead in an “accident.”   He had passed a CD of the scene to an unwitting acquaintance (played by Denzel Washington). So the full weight of the government’s information apparatus—all the CCTV cameras, phone taps, internet intercepts–falls on the acquaintance. It turns out that the government not only can listen to what you say and watch what you do, it can also plant information in the computer records of your life. Soon, the guy played by Denzel has been fired from his job, had his bank account frozen, and been tossed out of the house by his outraged wife. Eventually, a former government tech surveillance guy turned outlaw (played by Gene Hackman) saves the day by using the techniques of the NSA against the bad guys.

“Shooter” (2007, dir. Antoine Fuqua). Government agents get former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger (played by Mark Wahlberg) to come out of retirement to consult on a supposed plot to kill an important figure in Philadelphia. Turns out that they are setting up Swagger as the fall guy for a government-sponsored assassination done at the behest of big corporations—which own the US government. (See: “Citizens United” in the mythology of Democrats.) Swagger turns out to be hard to kill and hard to catch—Semper Fi—and he hunts answers. A newbie FBI agent (played by Michael Pena) gets staked out as sacrificial goat because he didn’t believe the stuff the bosses were saying, but Swagger turns him into an ally and they find the truth. After much shooting, the Truth comes out—within a restricted circle in the know. The rest of us are left in the dark, although it is implied that Survivalism isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

“The Bourne Legacy (2012, dir. Tony Gilroy). As anyone who has seen the earlier installments in the series knows, the US government created a bunch of psychologically-enhanced assassins to put a sharp edge on American action in the world. In this installment, a new generation of agents has also been chemically-enhanced into near-Marvel Comics characters. Scandal forces the government to burn down the program, but one of the agents, Aaron Cross, escapes and goes in search of answers. In pursuit of him, the US commandeers all sorts of surveillance systems from weather satellites to toll-booth cameras to CCTV security cameras in airports to credit card records to airline seating charts. In the end Cross (played by Jeremy Renner) and a rogue scientist from the program (played by Rachel Weisz), sail away, sail away, sail away on a fishing boat bound for the southern islands of the Philippines. Still, they’re careful to stay under an awning all the time, just in case of, you know, drones.

The conventions of these paranoid fantasies require a renegade product of evil covert government actions, a basically decent participant in those actions who is appalled to discover what s/he has been doing, and government officials who have been carried away in their pursuit of their duty to protect the dough-headed citizens of a fat, lazy America. (See: “Margin Call”; see: Edward Snowden—I mean “Edward Scissorhands”!)

[1] He purportedly committed suicide in 2012.