An Image from the Future: A Review of “The East”

15 May
The East playing a little game of "spin the bottle."

The East playing a little game of “spin the bottle.”

[Warning: Spoiler Alert]

By Scott Parkin/ Earth First! Newswire

True Blood’s Eric Northman and Juno lead a state-smashing anarchist collective seeking justice against corporate crime lords?

All I can say is “where do I sign up?”

True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page star in director Zal Batmanglij’s new film “The East.” It’s a provocative new film trying to undermine the usual parade of boring formulaic summer crapola and start a conversation in the wake of popular movement frenzy from Occupy Wall Street to the Tar Sands Blockade. I saw it at a special screening in Berkeley with Batmanglij doing a question and answer at the end of movie for a rowdy crowd of  lefties.

I love movies and I love anarchists. So the tale that Batmanglij and co-writer (and the film’s lead) Brit Marling weaves is one part love story, one part espionage thriller and all anarchy. They tell the story of undercover corporate spy and ex-FBI agent Sarah Moss tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group, “the East,” wanted for executing covert attacks upon major corporations. Shot in an amazing 27 days in Baton Rouge, the film delves into questions around justice, violence, community, commitment, and ultimately…which side are you on?

Batmanglij and Marling spent the summer of 2009 traveling through the North American anarchist scene researching the film. As a loud and proud anarchist, two months is enough to get a tone and feel for our world, but not enough to really understand the politics or the participants in it.

Here’s a couple of things that stood out to me.

The bad:

  1. “Daddy issues” drive us as anti-authoritarians. This theme in activist-centric pop culture drives me crazy. Like Stuart Townsend’s “Battle in Seattle,” the film depicts the anarchists as privileged children damaged by the system or, worse, with “daddy” issues responding to injustice with anger and hate. In “The East” a supporting character “Doc” has dropped out of promising medical career because of the death of his sister at the hands of a pharmaceutical giant. Skarsgard’s character Benji began his rebellion after the death of his parents in a boating accident and his remaining family tried to buy off his grief with money. Page’s character has such vitriol in her heart for her corporate exec father that she kidnaps him and his boss and forces them to jump into a lake poisoned by their company’s chemical waste. In the end, the father jumps in to prove his love for his estranged daughter.
  2. Snitches don’t get stiches? While not as absurd as Woody Harrelson’s cop in “Battle in Seattle” apologizing to jailed protestor Martin Henderson after beating the shit out of him, Benji tries to convince Sarah to run off with him and join the resistance. While love is always a wild card, I had problems believing that, once exposed, any anarchist would try and convince an informant to run away with them.
  3. The system was never broken, it was built this way. The film ends on a typical liberal note. Sarah embarks on a mission to transform her fellow corporate infiltrators into whistle-blowers and we see the same boring recycled solution to environmental problems–trust in the government and its regulatory agencies to do their jobs. While the film does a good job or portraying the evils of corporate america (see below), it leaves out any analysis of how the government acts in the interests of the 1%.
  4. Remember Zucotti Park. The film creates a spectrum of two extremes for dealing with corporate crimes (violent counter-attack on the perpetrators; making the system designed by the wealthy elite work), but no mention of popular mass movements that have effected change on the global system. We’re live in a time when Tunisians and Egyptians are throwing out dictators, where Greeks and Spaniards are fighting austerity and the occupation of a small park in lower Manhattan sparked a new anti-corporate revolution in the American imagination.  Whether its students in Montreal stopping privatization of their universities or Bolivians kicking out Bechtel, popular movements and mass organizing are true game changers in today’s system.

The good:

  1. The black-clad anarchists are the heroes. While portrayed as complicated people who embrace tactics that make the typical Obama voter cringe, I love movies where anarchists are the heroes fighting against evildoers in corporate america. Our movements are doing hard thankless work and are often left out of history and popular culture. Communicating anti-establishment heroes, anarchist heroes, strong women and counter-culture as forces for change in the world is one of the strongest points in the movie.
  2. We will counterattack three corporations in the next 6 months for their worldwide terrorism.” Corporate baddies have never looked so bad. During the question and answer, Batmanglij said that all of the instances of corporate crime in the movie were based on actual cases. From a pharmaceutical giant putting bad meds on the market or a chemical company poisoning local watersheds and killing children, you get the idea that the actions of The East are justified. Furthermore, the cold-blooded corporate honcho played by Patricia Clarkson is spot on. Early in her operation, Sarah discovers that the group will be poisoning a cocktail party with their own dirty meds. Clarkson tells her to let them proceed since they were not their firms clients. Profits over people every time.
  3. “Spy on us, we’ll spy on you.” The East” portrays the anarchists as smart strategic operators who figure out Sarah’s actual identity and plot to turn the tables on her private security firm. Too often, in pop culture and mass media, the anarchists and the activists are portrayed as dumb naïve kids duped into some plot that leads to them getting caught, killed or betraying their comrades.

Political paradigms are shifting. We live in a center right country governed by two parties (one center right, one far right). Films like “The East” are indicators that our nation’s politics are shifting back to the left.  Batmanglij told me at the screening that he hoped that this film would spark a conversation not just for radicals and anarchists, but for grandmothers and middle America film-goers. Left movements, autonomous movements are once again gaining in a popular and mainstream narrative. 1954’s Salt of the Earth, 1970s political thrillers like All The President’s Men and The Parallax View and even Reds (made during the height of Reagan’s cold war) communicated that a vibrant autonomous left existed in the United States.

Can we expect more of the same from Hollywood without the boring-ass liberal ending?

Here’s to the future of more autonomous left story-telling in mainstream culture.

4 Responses to “An Image from the Future: A Review of “The East””

  1. Edgewatch May 15, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    RAN is my favorite Big Green.
    Scott is my favorite Big Green Guy.
    Thanks for doing work I would never want to.
    Great review.

  2. occupycjnielsen May 16, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

    While very inclusive to the existential consequences of violent resistance, it has a hopeful quality of collective mutual assistance that perseveres within collective social justice movements. I just hate the ease with which the writers tend fall back on violence rather than peaceful non-compliance.

  3. Sundazed May 16, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    Cool, I had a bit of worries regarding this film. Seems, well expept for the ending then hehe, that its watchable.
    Thank you for the review


  1. Catching Fire to the Reign | Earth First! Newswire - May 19, 2013

    […] before, and pop culture isn’t the only sign of it. Take a look at the rise of indy flics like The East, Wrenched, Who Bomber Judi Bari?, and even Beasts of the Southern Wild, all traveling the film fest […]

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