Review by Ken Burke The East
An eco-terrorist thriller where a private agency undercover agent infiltrates a radical group but begins to see that their disruptive purposes aren’t entirely anti-social after all.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]
Although I’ve never experienced it directly, I’ve read about naïve moviegoers who either don’t think that a certain performer is creative enough in front of a camera (not realizing that the actor is working from lines in a prepared script rather than simply improvising a scene) or do think that the performer truly is the manifestation of the character he/she is playing, so that this “awful person” should be condemned for cheating on the spouse or divulging top-secret information (on that latter note there may be an argument to be explored, as was done in the recent documentary on Julian Assange, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks [Alex Gibney], but we’ll see how the inevitable fictional accounts of Mr. Assange and more-recent whistleblowers Bradley Manning [Iraq and Afghan Wars material] and Edward Snowden [NSA surveillance] play out in the near future). For those who simply assume that an actor’s onscreen role is just a typecast version of themselves (Even famous director John Ford contributed to this, if he really said it about his frequent star John Wayne after seeing him in Red River [Howard Hawks, 1948] that “I didn’t know the big sonofabitch could act.” However, in acknowledgement to there being some truth to the actor/character misunderstanding, I’ve yet to hear someone speak so kindly of someone who doesn’t seem to find herself as anything more than an exploited celebrity, famous just for somehow being a celebrity, hotel-heiress Paris Hilton, although she has received 2 Golden Raspberry Awards for her groan-worthy attempts at acting.) they can see how what seems to be an organic actor/character match is more carefully crafted than they assume by either reaching back to Woody Allen’s 1998 Celebrity where Allen finally recruited someone else (Kenneth Branaugh) to take on the central neurotic-nebbish role or jump right into contemporary cinema to see what Brit Marling does in The East, where she stars in a film she co-wrote with director Zal Batmanglij, playing a character with sympathies not fully close to her own (as evidenced by her comments in the second “suggested link” video clip noted below). In The East Marling is Sarah Moss, an undercover agent for the Washington, D.C.-based Hiller Brood Corp (her real name is Jane something [didn’t catch it but it’s a minor detail]), an espionage group for hire, primarily by multinational corporations who, in this particular narrative, want protection from eco-terrorist groups such as The East who are committed to retaliation against what they see as systemic lies, profiteering, and citizen degradation carried out by these profit-at-all-costs corporate criminals. The advantage for the clients working with Hiller Brood and their ilk is that all these customers want is protection of their company image and their corporate officers from their determined adversaries so they really don’t care what methods are used to combat their assailants, they just want to thwart the attacks without the legal/procedural restraints that might hamper the FBI (Sarah/Jane’s former employer) and similar government groups in shielding them from their dedicated opponents. At first, Sarah has few qualms about this as her patriotism and religious morals (an aspect of her life only quickly implied in opening scenes as she drives to work before The East assignment listening to Christian radio) encourage her to seek this potentially-dangerous-yet-national-security-based assignment, but as events unfold she finds her priorities shifting as she better understands the hypocrisies that taint both sides of the lives she’s trying to lead.
Sarah’s (we might as well call her that because that’s the persona that we see the most screen time and complexity about, until the end of the film) first mentor is her Hiller Brood boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), who wants to instill in her young charge the same sort of ruthless narrow-focus (in one instance she replies to Sarah about a concern that has developed during her undercover work with The East, “He’s not my client,” implying that whatever happens in the process of a job is not something Sharon has ethical concerns about as long as she’s keeping her own customer satisfied [a phrase I stole because of its applicability to the content of this film from Paul Simon’s song of the same name, originally on the1970 Bridge Over Troubled Water album but here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx6_0Do0qGQ from the Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits CD, the best version I can get at this point]) determination and set of successful accomplishments that has obviously led to Sharon’s high position within this company. In her own way, Sharon represents the attitude that the members of The East are battling against, the concept that those who command—whether politically or monetarily—are justified in being revered or at least acknowledged in their positions simply because they occupy these plateaus of power within a market-driven society. Sarah’s easily a part of that ideology as she willingly begins her latest challenge, as a combination of loyalty to national security concerns and desire to rise within the company ranks, with no concern that the reasons these eco-terrorists (or liberators, depending on how you perceive their motivations and tactics) cite for their actions against corporate giants have any justification either in principle or application. Sarah—as her true self, Jane of the brunette hair, well-tailored clothes, and smiling ability to completely hide her mission from her loving live-in boyfriend, Tim (Jason Ritter—son of late TV/film actor John Ritter and grandson of C&W singer Tex Ritter—but if you have any interest in him because of his various prior roles, especially his Emmy-nominated work in the TV series Parenthood, don’t let that be your motivation for seeing The East because he’s got a very minor presence in those few scenes where Sarah reverts to her real life as Jane, although maybe we don’t see much of him to minimize the conflicting devout-Christian/live-in-boyfriend aspects of Jane’s life back on the grid)—is a well-trained field agent, a no-nonsense clandestine operative, and a willing—although conflicted—participant in The East’s first 2 assaults in this film (although the opening news-interruption-voiceover-grainy-footage montage of their threats to corporate America show that they’re already well-known for their previous activities) in order to gain confidence within this secret organization; all of this shows her to be willing to invest herself in activities that as an FBI agent she should have called for an immediate sting and arrest, but as an independent operative she’s willing to stretch the letter of the law in order to satisfy her superiors. Sharon initially has no concerns that this emerging star mole will be an important contributor to the policies and practices of Hiller Brood. Later, though, she begins to worry that Jane/Sarah is showing some signs of Stockholm Syndrome, even though she’s an accepted infiltrator within The East rather than being held captive by them or submitted to intensive brainwashing.
Sarah’s next two important mentors, Izzy (Ellen Page), a major voice within The East, and Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), the leader of this supposedly communal organization, were originally intended to simply be victims of her infiltration, but the longer she’s with them the more she comes to appreciate not only the strongly-held beliefs this group has that their disruptive activities are a needed retaliation against the disregard-for-human-life attitudes of profit-driven multinational companies but also the personal charisma of Benji, who begins to help her forget for a time that Tim is innocently waiting back home in D.C. (buying her cover story that she’s on a no-contact mission in Dubai) and provides more of an incentive than simply finishing the job for going back under cover after she’s given an opportunity to take a break from her covert persona (in fact, when she does return home she finds herself sleeping on the floor at the foot of her own bed, now conflicted both as to the propriety of her mission and the strength of her link to Tim). Once Sarah has established an identity of being a non-conformist drifter (even to the point of being temporarily captured by some railroad security guys as she hops a freight train with some other drifters but manages to escape because of her skills at unlocking handcuffs with a paper clip—good thing that neither Tim nor Benji were into bondage sessions with her or they might have found themselves on the wrong end of the restraints if they tried to take her captive) she almost has her mission compromised by finding herself in the company of an actual government mole, Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), who smashes her phone thereby cutting her contact with the outside world, so for some reason that I didn’t fully follow she concocts an injury seemingly from her run from the railroad bulls which leads to him taking her to a doctor (Toby Kebbell playing Doc, the guy with glasses and his back to us in the photo just below) who’s now a key player with The East, resulting in her relatively easy incorporation into the group—despite some initial hostility from Izzy (whatever happened to Luca after that is also something that eluded me, as the main line of this story was easy to follow but certain small details became obscured as we needed to get quickly into The East’s hidden-in-the-woods-lair so that the primary events of the plot could get the time and attention they deserved). One aspect of this story that became known to Sarah but no one else in the group, however, is that Benji wasn’t always quite what he appeared to be either, because the abandoned house they were squatting in actually is on property owned by Benji’s family so while his anti-Establishment philosophy is sincere his credentials aren’t quite the hobo-with-a-plan persona that he projects to the group, giving an additional link to Sarah that she understands better than he does (we also learn later in the film that Benji turned anti-industrialist when he felt that he was becoming corrupted by the money he inherited when his parents died; whether the rest of the tribe knows his full background isn’t clear but they definitely look to him to determine their direction, except for the occasional backlash from often-angry Izzy).
As you can see from this photo The East is a small, tight-knit group who bond around their shared lifestyle, constant group interactions, and willingness to indulge in bizarre rituals in order to further their sense of community (Sarah’s initiation into the group after recovering from her very damaging self-inflicted wound consists of dinner where they all [but one, obviously] wear straightjackets to see how Sarah will react to this unanticipated situation [or they eat this way every night which would be even more unsettling but not out of character for this ideologically-obsessed group]; she manages to put some food from her wooden bowl onto her wooden spoon and get a little of it into her mouth but then finds herself immediately out of place as the others use their spoons to feed each other; however, Sarah is soon incorporated into the group in a nighttime outdoor ceremony after proving her worth by being willing to gut a deer to help provide food for the troupe [an action that would have made another Sarah—Palin—proud, despite the ideological differences to be encountered if she had somehow wandered into this scene]). Such unconventional thinking pays off also in their “jams,” their counter-corporate actions, allowing them to find intriguing methods of gaining access to their upper-echelon targets, with the first ones being a group of McCabe-Grey pharmaceutical-giant execs at a swanky gathering on Cape Cod. Their retaliation is for the harm caused to innocent third-world victims and caregivers from ingesting the company’s anti-malaria drug; the tactic is for Benji, Izzy, Sarah, and Doc to clean up, dress up, infiltrate the party through a connection to the CEO’s son, then spike the champagne with the company’s supposedly-harmless chemicals to see what the reaction will be on these unsuspecting targets. As it turns out, except for some mild nausea there isn’t much damage done but the situation reveals a lot for both Sarah and us to contemplate. First, while there was clear evidence that McCabe-Grey products had caused harm to innocent users nothing came of the “jam” on their leadership so we’re given reason to think that maybe their products are generally safer than our mercenaries claim—although the incident does lead to McCabe-Grey anti-toxins being investigated by the government so the strategy pays some dividends to the general public after all. Second, we see how far The East group is willing to push their revenge strategies, that this is not a nonviolent public awareness campaign but an opportunity to inflict eye-for-an-eye damage on those responsible for some documented atrocities; in fact, Doc laments that he may have given the socialites too weak of a dose so it’s clear that grotesque death of their adversaries would have been quite acceptable to The East’s well-coiffed commandoes which unnerves Sarah, just as the simple assurance of a McCabe-Grey spokesperson that their products are harmless rather than any attempt on the company’s part to submit their wares to an independent testing firm for actual confirmation is reason enough to unnerve us as we see the high-stakes game that both sides are playing here, where the capitalists simply want to protect their earnings flow and the crusaders claim higher moral ground but easily succumb to acceptance of revenge-driven violence of their own.
The second "jam" is what fully disturbs Sarah to the point of instability in her home life when she’s able to return to D.C. after its events because this time there’s clear evidence that the poisonous runoff water from the Hawkstone mining operation has led to disease and death for those unfortunates living downstream from the polluters. Hawkstone CEO Diane Wisecarver (Pamela Roylance) even fronts TV ads that claim production-process purity so she finds herself kidnapped by The East who insist that she strip and go into the water that she pretends to be so proud of. In her case, there are no quotes on the word pretends because in her fear she admits that this company knows about the danger of the contaminated liquid they’re allowing to infect the environment but nothing has been done about it because of the need to maintain the profit margin. To further complicate this scenario, Izzy has also kidnapped her father who seems to be president or board chair of Hawkstone so he’s there to forcibly watch the attempted “baptism” of Diane but finally repents and jumps in himself in an attempt to call off the assault on Diane’s desperate attempts to fight her immersion in the pond. Things get really nasty from there, though, because company security arrives, shots are fired, and Izzy is wounded in the escape. Doc’s hands are too shaky to make the necessary cuts in Izzy’s abdomen to remove the bullet so Sarah does it under his direction, putting her previous deer-gutting training to use. All to no avail, though, because Izzy dies anyway, leaving all of The East in a state of confused shock, especially Sarah who, once again, was instructed only to get information on this latest attack, not take action to prevent it. The emotional bond between her and Benji has accelerated by this time but is brought to a halt when she learns that he’s discovered her identity and that the third previously-announced “jam” is against Hiller Brood in that he’s driving her to their HQ where she must smuggle out a list of all the agents like herself so that he can publically expose them. She gets the information, leaving us with the impression that she’s willing to have the lives of many of her coworkers put in danger (although her actions cut both ways because her intel on The East’s “nest” leads to all but Benji being arrested by the FBI while the Hiller Brood operation is in progress), but then the Blackberry she used to take screen shots of her colleagues is confiscated as she leaves the building, which leads to a final break between her and Benji as she realizes that he’s opened her eyes to the need to act against all of this corporate malfeasance but not in the potentially violent way that has become acceptable to him. In fact, she still has the agent information on the phone chip which she slipped down her throat on a string so she goes to work with her own strategy to convince her fellow spies to simply use clandestine tactics to undermine the horrid work of industrialist offenders, with positive results of this more humane counterattack interspersed among the closing credits. Maybe it’s too idealistic to think that these well-paid espionage experts will all be so easily turned to the higher realms of their consciences, but it does make for a satisfying ending for those who want to see accountability rather than terror while acknowledging that there are excesses on both sides of this ecological battle, that some good is done by the products and employment options offered by the offending companies, even as they callously cause harm in the name of shareholder benefit, just as public awareness of the need to better regulate potentially-dangerous industries is a useful byproduct of the extreme tactics of guerrilla groups such as The East even though their methods are likely too radical—and personally- rather than truly ideologically-motivated—to gain widespread support for lasting change.
In The East everyone has “their reasons” (as Octave—second from left in this photo— admits about the rationalization of all human actions, benign or destructive, in Jean Renoir’s 1939 French classic Rules of the Game, another morality tale about roads wrongly taken even though, as in The East, there are no absolute heroes nor villains), with actions on those reasons executed and defended in a thought-provoking manner well worth your time to view, even if the ending may come off as a bit too easy given how difficult it is in the off-screen world to enforce corporate accountability on much of anyone unless it involves an oil spill the size of the Gulf of Mexico. I’ll leave your considerations on this complex film with another musical “equivalent” for ponderings about The East, a song which also contains ecological/political catastrophe mixed with an idealistic dream of salvation, Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” (from the 1970 album of the same name) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1e3m_T-NMOs&list= PLJ55M0D3-PrLQy4FXRqFclLxH7LLZJEIy (this site also has “Down by the River,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and “Helpless”—for this last one, posted by Joe Gaeb, there are beautiful shots of Silent Lake, Bancroft, Ontario, shot in mid-summer 2008; I can barely imagine a better short collection of Young tunes—in fact awhile back when I made some mix tapes to help distract me from long highway miles I put 4 of these same ones together in a cluster, all except “Cinnamon Girl,” which is OK but I could easily replace it with several others including “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “Alabama,” and “Harvest Moon”—you can probably find them all yourself on YouTube but this last one I’ll link at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2MtEsrcTTs and dedicate to my wonderful wife, Nina, in anticipation of our upcoming 23rd anniversary on June 30, you delightful dancer of life!). But if any of you are going to do a mini-Neil music fest before going out to see The East I’d suggest starting with the screaming-guitar ones first, then cool your jets with the slow ones so that you don’t enter the theatre in too agitated a state because you’ll find enough in this film to raise your blood pleasure as is (no matter your sociopolitical stance) and we don’t want to have to go running around the woods trying to find a doctor for you, now do we? But if you’re in the woods anyway trying to find due east, I’d steer clear of drinking from that stream over there, OK?
If you’d like to know more about The East here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f-v_ANgTbc (8:07 min. interview with director/cowriter Zal Batmanglij and cowriter/actor Brit Marling, along with my “favorite” Houstonian host Jake Hamilton, but at least this time he’s not so fawning toward his guests, just nicely interactive with them)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.