We’re watching THE EAST

20 Jun

The tale of a private intelligence operative infiltrating a band of ecoterrorists leaves Michael Marshall stirred, but not too shaken.

It’s horrendously difficult to make a polemical film that also draws people in with its story and characters. Zal Batmanglij’s The East doesn’t quite work as a thriller, but it comes close, and pulls off several bravura sequences along the way.

It’s the story of Sarah (Brit Marling, who also wrote the script with Batmanglij), a private intelligence operative whose company assigns her to infiltrate an anarchist group called The East. Sarah used to work for the FBI, but she now works for a private company that defends companies’ reputations from campaigners seeking to expose their malfeasance. The East has already attacked several big companies, and Sarah’s job is to infiltrate them and gather enough information to bring them down.

This doesn’t go as planned. Sarah initially dislikes the activists, but comes to respect and like them, particularly their freegan lifestyle of only eating food that mainstream society has discarded. She also starts sleeping with their charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård, whose good looks and pert bottom no doubt help to convert her). This plotline may remind some readers of Mark Kennedy, a UK police officer who went undercover to infiltrate protest groups and proceeded to sleep with several female activists. Sarah’s actions feel slightly less reprehensible, because she has developed genuine feelings for Benji, but it makes for a nicely tangled morality.

Sarah takes part in three of The East’s “jams”, and these set pieces are highlights, as the group targets pharmaceutical and chemical companies. The companies are unambiguous wrongdoers that clearly need to be brought down – there’s really no way to defend marketing an antibiotic that causes irreversible brain damage in thousands of people – so the only moral ambiguity lies in The East’s methods. These are delightfully vindictive: the pharma company’s executives all wind up drinking their deadly drug, mixed into glasses of champagne at an office party.

The various members of The East are all well-drawn, convincing characters. However it’s a little annoying to discover that the companies the group targets have all directly harmed one of the members, each of whom are now getting revenge. It makes for neat storytelling, but it’s a little simplistic to suggest that people only become activists because they’ve been personally wronged.

Brit Marling is excellent as Sarah, conveying her gradual change from cold corporate drone to free-thinking anarchist. However, she never shows us why Sarah chose her dreadful job in the first place. We discover that she has a boyfriend with zero personality and an apartment entirely decorated in cream, and that she listens to Christian radio. This helps to place her in a high-achieving Ivy League context, but she’s always something of a cipher. It’s telling that Sarah is just as emotionally closed-off in her normal life as she is when she goes undercover, and only comes to life in the final third of the film. It’s as if Marling and Batmanglij had a clear idea of what turns people into extremists, but no idea what makes them conformists.

Unfortunately the thriller aspects of the film feel a little undercooked. In particular I never felt that Sarah was in danger of being uncovered as a spy by the activists, and while the film pulls out some big twists towards the end, they don’t generate much suspense.

In fact, the film’s most thrilling moment doesn’t involve action or espionage. It’s when Sarah, who once watched The East’s freegan eating habits with disgust, pulls a half-eaten apple out of a bin and bites into it without a second thought. I wanted to punch the air.

Also on the blog: World War Z: Paul McAuley flees waves of contagion.

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