The creators of The East, especially star and co-writer Brit Marling, have been quite vocal about their intentions: they made the film to provoke discussion about the tactics of so-called “eco-terrorist” groups and about the environmental movement in general. Marling’s heart is surely in the right place: several years ago, the struggling actress spent a summer backpacking around the country, spending time with freegans, anarchist collectives, and organic farmers. In the film, Marling has created a character – an undercover agent embedded with an eco-terrorist group – caught between betraying and supporting these people and their movement. But in real life, Marling has already betrayed them onscreen: The East may have a do-gooder sheen, but it only skims the truth of the movement it depicts and ends up portraying its activist heroes far worse than they really are.
The film unfolds like an espionage thriller. Marling plays Sarah, a former FBI agent now working for a private intelligence firm that embeds undercover agents with anarchist groups to gather intelligence on behalf of their clients – large corporations who are being targeted by such groups. Sarah stumbles onto The East, the most hardcore of these groups, and eventually becomes emotionally entangled with its charismatic leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), and his second-in-command, Izzy (Ellen Page).
I imagine it was Page’s involvement that got the film made, but she graciously cedes the film’s largest part to the up-and-coming Marling, although the results of that move are mixed. Marling is an unusual screen presence – you can never quite tell what she is thinking, but it’s unclear if that’s from a lack of craft or is instead an acting choice. If so, it’s an effective one for a character living a double life (her boyfriend even tells her at one point that he doesn’t know what she’s thinking anymore). As her character spends more time with The East, she grows attached, particularly to Benji, and ultimately must decide whether to betray them or her corporate bosses.
The filmmakers have no such inner quarrel. In order to package this issue into commercial form, they villainize their heroes and let the true bad guys off the hook. The East often feels like a parody of anarchist groups that will surely thrill conservatives who have been tying liberals to the counterculture movement for decades; the group lives in the woods and behave like stock characters from a movie about hippies (I half-expected Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston from Wanderlust to show up).
But more significantly, these activists are violent – their first collective action or “jam,” as the film lamely calls it, is to sneak into a pharmaceutical company party and lace the board members’ drinks with their own drug, which has been rushed to market despite the fact that it causes brain degeneration. The pharmaceutical reps will get sick and die, part of the group’s “eye for an eye” ethos, but in real life, eco-anarchist groups focus entirely on the destruction of property, not people. In fact, by most counts, not a single person has been killed by organizations like this one. Of course, those who are unfamiliar with the movement will likely walk out of the theater thinking that the actions of The East are true-to-life.
They will also assume that this struggle exists only between activists and corporations. The film completely leaves out the failures of the federal government, which has worked in lockstep with big business to label actions like those depicted in the film “terrorism” and prosecute activists the fullest extent of the law. Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, as recently as 2009, making it an act of terror to engage in conduct “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise,” which is defined broadly under the law. As a result, many “eco-terrorists,” like those on the film, get sent to Supermax prisons built exclusively for suspects of real terrorism, where the inmates receive little exercise and are allowed few visits from family.
By leaving the actions of the federal government out of the film altogether – the FBI is only briefly seen raiding a house suspected of holding members of The East – the filmmakers have let down the movement they claim to support. While both corporate America and the government share the blame in our society’s failure to protect the environment, only one – the government – is actually accountable to the people, and a narrative that focused on that corruption would have been a stronger one. As such, the film reinforces the conservative myth that government is not in the pocket of big business when it comes to the environment.
If the movie is intended to provoke a national discussion, it will surely be considered a failure. Environmentalists like me will be chafed by its inaccuracies, and those who are more inclined to side with big business will be emboldened – not chastened – by the depiction of the activists. Ultimately, this milquetoast narrative only demonstrates the challenges of trying to make a message movie in commercial form. You are better off watching 2012’s Oscar-nominated documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Movement, instead. When it comes to film and real-world politics, the truth is almost always stronger than fiction.