Written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij
Directed by Zal Batmanglij
Environmental terrorism occupies a strange place in America’s security situation. The danger of pollution should be a scientific issue, not a political one, but of course it has become both. As with most political issues, there are those who would resort to violence and those who would not, and the real question is how a person decides which group they’re going to be in. The East, co-written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij and directed by Batmanglij, answers that question just about as well as any movie can.
Marling plays Jane, an operative at a private intelligence corporation, tasked to infiltrate a radical group known as The East, whose members include Ellen Page and Alexander Skaarsgard. She soon finds herself in too deep as the “jams” that the group executes become more and more intense. Nothing at all about that plot will be especially shocking, as the “in too deep” story is not uncommon (including the previous Batmanglij/Marling collaboration, Sound of My Voice). But there is a reason why the “in too deep” story is so popular: the involvement becomes too deep for different reasons, at a different speed, in every single movie. The drama always comes from a different angle.
In this case, the drama comes from that most basic of human decisions: denial. Jane is a decent person – religious without being a fanatic, in a healthy relationship, former FBI agent – but the movie turns upon the fact that a lot of “decent” people are in denial about what happens to their biosphere in order to keep the electricity on. To highlight this, Batmanglij’s direction is straightforward and stark: each of the characters can have no denial in the face of his cold and unfeeling camera.
Moreover, it is not just the polluters who are in denial. Jane is in denial about the reasons for her mission, and many members of The East are in denial too, for reasons that are best left unspoiled (take note of who Page targets during her jam; even though she thinks she is confronting an evil, she’s still in denial about who is actually responsible). It may not be accurate to call this movie “even-handed” on the subject of pollution, not when the film is as close to The East as Jane is, but it is a film which can challenge either side of the discourse to re-examine itself.
The clearest way that the effect of The East can be seen is on the issue of “freeganism” (subsisting on a food budget of zero or near-zero, usually via dumpster diving). At the beginning of the film the audience sees this practice as Jane sees it, as an unsanitary thing done by dirty hippies. At the end of the film there is no question that Jane’s mind has been changed, but the political statement that The East as a group makes with the practice may or may not be honest. The audience is left to decide for themselves what path is right, which is the only real way that a mind can be changed.