Anarchy in the Theater

In Review: The East

“We will counterattack three corporations for their worldwide terrorism in the next six months.” So declares the eco-anarchist group “The East” near the beginning of Zal Batmanglij’s new film of the same name. With this politically tinged suspense and action film, Batmangilij seeks to break the mold of the usual formulaic summer blockbusters. The director of earlier sci-fi inflected dramas, Batmanglij appears to want to surf the frenzy of Occupy Wall Street and the Tar Sands Blockade that grabbed headlines. The film delves into questions around justice, violence, community, commitment, and ultimately asks the viewer, Which side are you on?

This provocative film is one part espionage thriller, one part love story, and all anarchy. Batmanglij tells the story of undercover corporate spy and ex-FBI agent Sarah Moss (Brit Marling, who also gets a co-writer credit) tasked with infiltrating an eco-anarchist group called “The East.” The collective, fronted by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and Izzy (Ellen Page), is wanted for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.

movie poster

The corporate bad guys have never looked so bad. And the depiction isn’t just caricature: the director drew the film’s corporate misdeeds from real stories of corporate crime. From oil companies spilling billions of gallons of oil into pristine eco-systems, to a pharmaceutical giant putting bad meds on the market, to a chemical company poisoning local watersheds and children, we’re given the sense that The East’s actions are justified. A private security honcho named Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) is especially vile. When, early in her undercover operation, Sarah discovers The East will be poisoning a Big Pharma cocktail party with dirty meds, Sharon orders her to let them proceed – since the party goers aren’t her clients, she doesn’t care what happens to them.

But, for me at least, the verisimilitude breaks down when it comes to its depictions of the eco-warriors at the heart of the film. As a self-identified anarchist and activist, I just wasn’t buying it. Not that Batmanglij and Marling didn’t try to get it right. The writers spent the summer of 2009 traveling through the North American anarchist scene researching the film. To their credit, they depict the anarchist activists as smart, strategic operators – not as dumb, naïve kids duped into some plot, the usual script for the mainstream media. While two months is enough to get a tone and feel for the North American anarchist subculture, it’s not enough to really understand the real meaning of its politics or its inhabitants. In the end, The East’sportrait of anarchists falls flat, seeping some of the movie’s punch.

Like Stuart Townsend’s Battle in Seattle, the film depicts the activists as privileged children damaged by the system or, worse, crippled with “daddy issues” and lashing out with anger and hate. In The East a supporting character, Doc (Toby Kebbell), has dropped out of mainstream society because of the death of his sister at the hands of a pharmaceutical giant. Benji began his rebellion after the death of his parents in a boating accident and the insult of his remaining family trying to buy off his grief with money. Izzy has such poison in her heart for her corporate executive father that she kidnaps him and his boss and forces them to jump into a lake poisoned by their company’s chemical waste. In the end (spoiler alert!), the father willingly jumps in to show his love for his estranged daughter – proving to the audience he has more compassion than his supposedly world-saving daughter.

While not as absurd as Woody Harrelson’s cop in Battle in Seattle apologizing to jailed protestor Martin Henderson after beating the shit out of him (or 2002’s Anarchist Cookbook in which anarchist Puck turns his friends into the police before taking off to marry his Republican girlfriend) the twist at the ending is pushing ridiculous. (Second spoiler alert!) Benji tries to convince Sarah to run off with him and join the resistance. While love is always a wild card, it’s difficult to believe that any anarchist would try and convince an exposed informant to run off into the sunset. Cue face to palm.

Beyond the unbelievable theatrics of the script, there’s a bigger problem with the film’s premise: Its depiction of political activism is a false choice. The film sets up two options for responding to corporate crimes: either violent counter-attack or fuzzy idealism that the system itself will make its own corrections. The filmmakers seem to have ignored (or misunderstood) the lessons from recent successful social movements. We live in a time in which Tunisians and Egyptians have thrown out dictators, Greeks and Spaniards are fighting austerity via strikes and sit-ins, and the occupation of a small park in lower Manhattan sparked a new anti-corporate consciousness in the American mainstream. From students in Montreal stopping privatization of their schools to Bolivians kicking Bechtel out of El Alto, popular movements and mass organizing are the real game changers in today’s political system. But watching The East, you get the sense that violent counter-attack is the only way to strike back against environmental destruction and social injustice.

In the end, Sarah undergoes a radical transformation from law enforcement careerist to whistle-blower. She launches a campaign to expose the corporate criminals by turning them in to government agencies. To me, trusting in the system to function correctly seems a naïve solution to environmental problems. The reality is the revolving door between industry and government make it nearly impossible to distinguish the regulators from those they are supposed to be regulating. Also, it’s sometimes the whistle-blowers who end up being persecuted. This film seems oblivious of the fact that the government usually acts in the interests of the one-percent-ers.

Batmanglij hopes The East will be a conversation-starter not just for anarchists and radicals, but for grandmothers and ordinary summertime moviegoers. Despite my quibbles about the film, I hope he’s right. We need more pop culture offerings that can spark discussions about the resistance to business as usual.

The history of art and insurrection is encouraging. You wouldn’t have had a civil rights movement without Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. You wouldn’t have had Students for a Democratic Society and massive anti-Vietnam War protests without Allen Ginsberg and the Beats waxing poetically about inherit flaws in the American system ten years earlier. Likewise, stories of a new vibrant environmental movement are gaining in pop culture despite the country being governed by a center-right party (Democrats) and far right party (Republicans). Whether it’s the other-wordly eco-rebellion of Avatar, the animal revolt of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the proletarian uprising of the Hunger Games, or critically acclaimed documentaries like If A Tree Falls and Gasland, the movie theater has become one of the most important places for exploring environmental politics. Those films and others prove that you can cut all the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.

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