Another production by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, THE EAST (2013, streaming on STAR on DisneyPlus) is a social-conscience thriller that critiques capitalism, eco-terrorism, and personal responsibility. It’s a very strong film with a powerful message that stops short of preaching.
Jane (Marling), an intelligence operative for a private investigative firm working for big corporate clients, is assigned to go undercover to identify the members of The East, an organization labeled as eco-terrorists for their “jams,” or operations designed to retaliate against, expose, or humiliate the top executives at the worst companies. An oil tycoon who owns a tanker that spills in the ocean gets his house flooded with oil, that sort of thing. Jane discovers and infiltrates the group and does her job but increasingly comes to sympathize with the group’s members (particularly its charismatic leader played by Alexander Skarsgård) and its objectives, though she disagrees with their methods, which teeter on the edge of outright violence.
As Jane continues to question who she works for, and the authorities close in on The East, she has to make the ultimate choice.
This is a terrific movie. It functions both as a nice thriller on its own right and also a social-conscience film about how might may make right but money makes might–makes might but also defines the truths we take for granted as being true. This kind of thing hits close to home in a lifetime of social conditioning about capitalism good, communism bad, etc. etc., so critiquing capitalism can’t be covered in media without propagandizing one way or the other.
A big element of this is that social-conscience films usually can’t make protest sympathetic unless the protesters are perfect. John in the film JOHN Q takes hostages in a hospital to get his kid a transplant after his insurance provider denies coverage, but it can’t be that he’s an average Joe and the private health system is freaking horrific and about to murder his son, no, he has to be basically a saint or else his kid doesn’t deserve the implant because Dad didn’t make all the right choices in life. Because in America, we love to crucify the messenger as a way to criticize a message we don’t like, and while many Americans innately believe government should help, they’ve been conditioned to believe government shouldn’t help them because they don’t deserve it.
In THE EAST, the eco-terrorists aren’t treated as lovable saints or idealistic idiots or hip and cool hackers with a vague revolution against the “system,” they’re just people committed to a cause, with at least one of them outright victimized by the system and shown that this is how he turned into an activist. This allows us to come to our own conclusions about what they’re fighting against and the methods they use to fight, just like Jane does, without being forced to feel one way or the other by the filmmakers and without making every social issue a referendum on the likeability of fictional characters played by good-looking actors.
Overall, THE EAST is a solid grownup thriller for grownups that tackles some very serious subjects and handles them well. There’s no Hollywood ending here, though I did find it a bit optimistic. I think Marling wanted to involve the viewer more directly at that point, basically saying, “Maybe you should get involved, which is a potential cause for optimism.” If you’re interested in something similar in print, check out THE FOUNTAIN AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD by Robert Newman or THE IRON HEEL by Jack London.