Director: Zal Batmanglij, 2013 (PG-13)
The East tells the story of an ambitious private investigator who finds herself questioning her own morals and those of her employer. In contrasting the excesses of corporate America with those who drop out of society to live in anarchist collective, Batmanglij’s film tries to balance techno-thriller with societal commentary and manages to miss slightly miss at both. The movie does have moments of tension, but its slow pacing tends to suffocate the suspense. Yet it’s worth a watch for the ethical themes not often found in American cinema.
Sarah (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with Batmaglij) works for an elite private investigative and intelligence company that seeks to protect its large corporate clients from terrorists and other activists. She wants and wins the job of infiltrating an anarchist group known as “The East” who execute covert attacks on American corporations they believe have trashed the environment or deceived us over pharmaceuticals. In other words, they are self-anointed corporate consciences but with a twist. They repay an eye for an eye, and act as judge, jury and executioner all themselves.
Telling her boyfriend she is leaving the country for a short-term job, an act of deception in itself, she changes suits and shoes for hoodies and birkenstocks, and sets off in search of the eco-terrorists. After striking out with the initial target, she strikes gold with Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), an androgynous hobo who leads her to an abandoned and distressed country home that is now occupied by the members of the East: Izzy (Ellen Page, Juno), an intense zealot; Doc (Toby Kebbell), who has suffered from the side-effects of a major drug; Tess (Danielle Macdonald), expert hacker; and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the soft spoken but charismatic leader of the group.
The East has committed to hitting three major corporations in six months, performing “jams” on them that will put them negatively in the public eye and will give them an appropriate taste of their own medicine. Batmanglij wants us to root for these people, who are living separate from the society that is impacted by their actions. But he overly demonizes corporate America. There is no doubt a semblance of truth in the corporate excesses, from the shocking oil spills to the nasty pharmaceutical side-effects. But this is too simplistic.
When one of the group leaves suddenly, Sarah finds opportunity to become an active member of the group, which is what her corporate boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson, Lars and the Real Girl) wanted her to do. But as kidnap victims often succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome, so too does Sarah. And she finds herself questioning Sharon’s commands.
In one key scene, Sarah in the middle of a jam sneaks away to surreptitiously call Sharon to let her know what is going on so that she can take action. But the company being targeted is not one of Sharon’s clients and so she does not care to intervene. She sees more benefits to her and to her employer to let this take place as a visual warning to potential clients of what might happen if they don’t sign on with her. This moral relativism offends Sarah, as it should. Her employer wants profit even if it means some will be hurt in the process. There is a real message here. Some situations should preempt the bottom line. But Sharon’s failure to rise to the occasion forces Sarah to reconsider her priorities. She finds herself caught between the job she wanted and the life she is living; between her normal but boring boyfriend and the charismatic but driven collective leader. Ultimately, she has to find herself and determine who she wants to be.
Both Marling and Batmanglij based the screenplay they wrote on their own experiences from the summer of 2009, when they practiced freeganism and lived in an anarchist collective. Freeganism describes the lifestyle that employs alternative strategies based on limited participation in the conventional economy. One aspect, shown in the film, is searching for food that has been discarded: dumpster diving. When Luca looks for and finds some donuts in a dumpster, Sarah finds this distasteful. But later, once she has embraced some basic principles of a freegan approach, she picks up a half-eaten apple from a garbage can and eats it enjoyably.
Freeganism may not be for many of us, but its underlying philosophy of avoiding waste has merit. Too much edible food is discarded because it has past its due date. Gleaning is becoming a popular approach to reusing this food. With people starving, we cannot really afford to simply toss such food out. Non-profits, such as Birch Community Services, collect food from companies that cannot sell it and make it available to the needy, often along with educational services to help them get out of poverty. Gleaning dates back to the Old Testament times. The Israelites were instructed: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you” (Lev. 23:22) This practice allowed the less fortunate to still survive even without owning land of their own.
Wherever you fall on the anarchist-capitalist spectrum, there is likely something in this film for you to wrestle with even if you end up disagreeing with its position. But perhaps you’ll find yourself like Sarah questioning some of your own moral foundations. If you do, maybe you’ll hear that still small voice of God who calls you to follow Jesus living a counter-cultural life. You don’t have to be an anarchist freegan to make a difference!
Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs