A.O. Scott in the New York Times called The East a ‘neat little thriller about ends and means and ethical quandaries’. Betsy Sharkey in the LA Times said it’s a ‘dizzying cat and mouse game with all sorts of moral implications’. Richard Brody in the New Yorker called it ‘absurdly superficial and tendentious’.
Shot quickly, on a Hollywood-modest budget of $6.5 million, it’s got a paranoid style that references Lumet and Pakula. Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay, plays an FBI-agent-turned-corporate-spy (Sarah) who infiltrates an eco-anarchist collective (‘The East’) but has second thoughts about the assignment. Like any movie that’s compromised itself for a PG-13 rating, The East tries to have things both ways. Sarah never lets go of her reservations about particular ‘jams’ – the film’s silly term for The East’s ‘counterattacks against worldwide corporations’ – but she comes around to The East’s way of thinking. It doesn’t hurt that the group’s leader (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is tall and easy to look at.
There’s a lot more that’s silly. Marling and the film’s director, Zal Batmanglij, get a bit thick with the Christian imagery; Sarah’s conversion involves a group bath that looks very much like a baptism. But, according to Marling, the film also conveys something of her own experiences, and Batmanglij’s. ‘We got this idea that we wanted to do a “buy nothing” summer and we wanted to travel and we wanted to learn how to train hop and we wanted to sleep on roof tops and dumpster dive and explore this world of anarchy and freegans and intentional communities,’ she has said. ‘And we did it and it was… I’m not the same person. I just was different on the other side.’
When The East played at Sundance, in January, members of the audience had their own conversion experiences. ‘At a screening today at 8 in the morning, we were walking out, and this woman grabs my arm,’ Marling told USA Today. ‘She’s maybe in her mid-40s, and she’s in tears and says, “I work for a pharmaceutical company, and this movie just blew my mind. It’s changing the way I think about everything, about my career, about what I do for a living, and I don’t know what the answers are, and I don’t know what it means about what I should do next, but I’m thinking about it.” It was really intense.’
‘These CEOs came to where we were having dinner,’ Batmanglij said, ‘and the gist of what they said was, “If your movie can get us to have the conversation we just had at dinner, then imagine what else it can do.”‘
This is high self-praise for a Hollywood movie: what else could it do? One of the things it does do, relatively well, is convey something of the look and feel of post-left politics — by Hollywood standards, The East is cinéma vérité. I left the theatre with other questions. Later, I emailed some friends to ask if they’d seen it. ‘I guess I’m interested in how anarchists feel about how their world is depicted,’ Marling has said. So was I.
Lawrence Jarach, an editor of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, saw the film with Carla Herzblut (a pseudonym), a veteran of the the Autonome Antifa (M) of Goettingen:
A selfless female crusader against corporate corruption and malfeasance? A protagonist transformed from a pro-business private intelligence operative into that crusader through exposure to a collective of faux-radical, quasi-anarchist eco-avengers with unresolved daddy issues, led by a substitute Jesus? A film suffused with liberal pacifist morality, up to and including the deadly punishment of the most uncompromising – and female – activist? The moral? Revenge is wrong – better to leave it up to the state, in this case the EPA – and charisma trumps reasoned debate.
Consent is supposed to be a big part of the transformative process of the protagonist; during the pivotal bathing/baptism scene, there is a constant checking-in to maintain the voluntary aspect of what is clearly some uncomfortable physical intimacy. Yet the group had no problem with drugging her without her knowledge, and locking her in a room for what looked like at least 36 hours. And the protagonist has no trouble being a horrific bully to the deaf (and therefore presumably more emotionally vulnerable) woman who had guarded – and is just about to expose – her.
Without any mention of the more basic devastation to the environment and people inherent in the interlocking institutions of capitalism/big-business and the state, or the idea that there could be a principled opposition to ecologically destructive industries, this film (like other fantasy-based mainstream portrayals of unrepentant radicals) reinforces the middle-class conceit of peaceful, legal methods of social change. Some of us, however, know that these campaigns can’t yield anything more than cosmetic alterations.
I canvassed a couple of other opinions too. Christopher Sorrentino is the author of Trance, a novel set in the world of 1970s revolutionary politics, and a book-length essay on Michael Winner’s Death Wish:
I had to wonder what political point it could possibly have been hoping to make, given its blissful embrace of rounded Hollywood form – e.g., a depiction of growth and change that makes Sarah’s conventionalised points of departure (generic Christianity, sterile apartment, neutered boyfriend, bland materialism, and a host of unexamined assumptions) seem crassly obvious once she has arrived at her new self-identity, and particularly in the movie’s closing endorsement of a ‘third way’ of continued liberal activism (the substance of that new self-identity), depicted in the closing montage using filmic techniques jarringly reminiscent of the very corporate advertising the movie parodies.
I’m not suggesting that a ‘third way’, some combination of environmental and consumer advocacy, isn’t possibly the most effective next step an apathetic citizenry can take from a politically sedentary position. But as the film’s formal solution to the moral ambiguity it conjures, it doesn’t begin to approach the more essential issues the film raises concerning the concentration of wealth and power in this country.
Maybe that’s the fundamental dictum of corporate art – confine axiomatic truth within an inoffensively familiar form to flatter the audience. Among other helpful remarks in his ‘Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art’, Alain Badiou says that ‘Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.’ The East is none of those things.
Joshua Clover, who teaches at UC Davis, saw the film on its opening weekend, ‘in a theatre packed, somewhat confusingly, with many older-than-me Berkeley bourgeoises’:
More or less all the members of the East (ELF-as-imagined-by-halfwits) but especially the leading figures Benji and Izzy are rich kids who have come by their politics via mommy-and-daddy issues. This is a shadow of a real albeit minor type in radical milieux and we needn’t pretend otherwise. But the dubious accuracy of this particular caricature is irrelevant. The underlying logic insists on the primacy of psychology over politics and thereby the primacy of the individual over the collective — the religion of the bourgeoisie. As long as that premise obtains, all pseudo-sympathy for any ’cause’ is entirely dishonest. It’s just Hollywood Thatcherism. Fuck that film.
This particular operation means to render unthinkable the idea that people could arrive at revolutionary politics via a clear-headed analysis followed through to conclusions. Instead they must be in the grip of some hidden compulsion which they obey relentlessly, all the while insisting that this obedience is freedom. Now obviously this is the world stood on its head: it describes capitalism perfectly. Indeed, I guess it’s worth saying that this film, like all films with the same basic proposition, is about capitalism, not about any alternatives or opposition. A film can only be about something else if it allows for the idea that capitalism cannot be reformed but must be annihilated, and that this knowledge is derivable from objective truths. But if someone reached that conclusion, it is unclear whether their next step would be to make a movie.