When I was doing my undergrad work at San Francisco State University, I took a political science class where, during a class discussion, one of the students kept framing her questions to the professor through the lens of eco-terrorism. Even when the discussion veered away from what she wanted to talk about, she kept bringing it back: “Well, how do we justify a Machiavellian politics in light of the eco-terrorists?”
I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. This was 1989, and the term “eco-terrorist” hadn’t pinged on my radar, so I kept trying to imagine why an environmentally friendly group would resort to terrorism to get their point across. What can I say. I lived a sheltered life up to that point. After class, I worked up the nerve to approach her and ask, “Um, I’m going to sound stupid, but what’s an eco-terrorist?” She explained that some people in these eco-terrorist groups would “spike” a tree with metal so when loggers would cut them down, their chain saws would cut into the metal spike and destroy the chain saw and possibly injure the worker.
Got it. I wasn’t naive anymore about the methods eco-terrorist use to make their point — or at least when it came to stopping companies who were clear-cutting forests.
Flash-forward to 2013, and the subject of eco-terrorism is front and center in the film The East — a thriller set in the east coast where an anarchist collective called (what else?) The East is causing all sorts of trouble for CEOs of major corporations through acts of eco-terrorism. These acts of violence and destruction are not against the companies these CEOs lead, but are perpetrated against the CEOs, their families, friends and their personal property.
But that’s just half of it. Enter Sarah Moss (as played by Brit Marling –who also co-wrote the script) who works for a private company that provides counter-terrorist services for high-paying clients affected by The East. She’s young, smart, confident, a praying Christian, and willing and able to infiltrate The East so she can disrupt these acts (known as “jams”). The goal is to “swat” these gadflies so members of the group will be arrested for harming others. Sarah is not a government agent (though she did work for the FBI at one point), rather she’s a private agent whose work is narrowly framed by the client’s needs.
Sarah goes into deep cover, and takes on the persona of a free spirit/runaway. She falls in with a bunch of young wanderers who hop on rail cars to hitch a free ride to the next place. There she meets Luca (Shiloh Fernandez) who helps her after private rail security throws her and her traveling companions off the train and beat her up for trying to defend Luca. Once Sarah realizes that Luca is connected to The East, she purposely injures herself so she can be brought into the collective to treat her wounds. There she meets the other members of the group and their leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård — yes, Eric Northman from the HBO series, True Blood). Because Sarah is trying to infiltrate this group, she has to play her role as a runaway in a believable way to gain the trust of the group. And because this is a movie, she eventually does and becomes a participant in their terrorist ways.
I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but suffice it to say that The East is a taut thriller that makes it hard to take sides. You may think it’s wrong that the side effects of a drug can lead to chronic damage for those who take it, but you may find it difficult to be rooting for a group who is actively trying to poison the leaders of the drug company with their own medicine. Moreover, you may be horrified by the harm The East is inflicting on people, but will find it tough to be supportive of the company Sarah works for because they only care about growing their business and will let non-clients die long and painful deaths simply because they didn’t have the foresight to hire them in the first place. There are no defined black hats and white hats in this film, and because it’s morally murky, it makes for a substantive movie that is a good palate-cleanser for the plethora of blockbusters that summer movie-going is known for.