Zeitgeist is always important to a movie producer, so it’s unsurprising to see The East come out timed like this – a film about a pressure group using the internet to coordinate and take direct action against the corporations draining the world’s lifeblood for their own sakes.
Brit Marling, a rising hot property in independent cinema, uses some weeks spent living rough out of choice as inspiration for her performance as a private intelligence agent sent undercover to infiltrate and ultimately bring down a group of environmental activists, The East. Led by Benji, as played by another actor whose star is rising, Alexander Skarsgård, with Ellen Page as his most fervent lieutenant, the group plan and execute what they call “jams” against various corporations which they’ve found evidence against – the opening depicts one such attack, filling the air vents of an oil tycoon’s lavish house with the oil his ships leaked into oceans. These events act as sort of waypoints in the film’s timeline, as the group get more and more ambitious. The driving tension of the plot come from Marling’s increasing lack of surety about her loyalties, as the moral force of the East grapples with her employment and home life.
The cast are all reliable, but not outstanding in any one case,but while the relationship which develops between Benji and Sarah (Marling) is something which the actors and director Zal Batmanglij play up as integral to the force of the film, it comes across as somewhat rushed and forced. The two do not seem to have anything in common for much of the film, making it hard to believe the supposed latent feelings they harbour for each other. In terms of production, however, the film is competent in all regards, cleanly shot and with little to cause confusion or boredom.
However, it nonetheless comes up lacking in some regards; for a film about passionate clashes with the established system and economic unfairness, there is not enough in the way of convincing argument and righteous force in the picture. There is supposedly a sustained debate about whether it is acceptable to hold individuals responsible for the actions of huge companies, but this actually boils down to Sarah repeatedly trying to stop Izzy, Ellen Page’s firebrand activist, from doing too much to their captives, and little else. The conclusion, meanwhile, would have been open-ended and satisfying were it not for a hopelessly idealistic closing montage, which implies frankly unbelievable achievements.
Marling and Batmanglij, who co-wrote the screenplay, are clearly aware of the role of traditional and social media in affairs like this, and evidence it with repeated use of television interviews of CEOs and YouTube clips uploaded by the outcasts. Again, it is therefore disappointing when a member of the group spouts out dialogue about the corporations trying to hack their video and trace it to them, but not to worry because she’s so pro – while anonymous white-on-black code scrolls on the screen in front of her: this technobabble has no place in a film which is otherwise down-to-earth about the power of a cell phone camera in the modern world, for example.
The East is a film which promises more than it delivers, and could’ve done with a stronger and angrier central message; instead, it points out the obvious, that some corporations do bad things because they make money that way, and uses this as a frame to tell a fairly traditional spy tale. This is not an overt problem, and when it does actually discuss the problem which it is about, it shows worth. More to the point, its traditional spy movie is completely decent.