The Radical Non-Politics of ‘The East’

the eastThe East, just out this weekend, is a movie ostensibly about radical anarcho-environmentalists that has little to say about radicalism, anarchism, or environmentalism. It’s not a bad movie; as a suspenseful drama it’s entertaining. But that’s part of the problem. The entertainment comes first, and second, and third, and the politics last. This is one of those “I want to entertain my audience, but also make them think” movies in which politics ends up providing little more than a cardboard backdrop to what is finally a conventional thriller.

Fair warning: this will include every imaginable spoiler.

The first strategy The East uses to push politics to the background is to make the radicals’ targets as uncomplicated as imaginable. “The East” (the name of the radicals’ semi-revolutionary cell) first goes after a drug company marketing a product that is not only dangerous but reliably so; nearly everyone who takes it suffers debilitating and life-threatening side effects. The second target is an energy company that is intentionally dumping harmful chemicals into a local watershed.

When drug companies knowingly poison people in order to make a profit and energy companies pollute drinking water in order to save money, these are not really environmental issues. They’re criminal justice issues. Such behavior is not a matter of debate; any sane person would object – wholeheartedly – to this kind of corporate malfeasance. Because there’s no debate there is no political discussion, and because there’s no political discussion there’s no broad theory of how society works and what exactly The East opposes. The only political arguments the movie allows are methodological – is it acceptable to threaten the lives of those who threaten others’? That’s a legitimately complicated question, but less so here because it’s so decontextualized. We have no idea what The East think (other than that corporations are often corrupt and there should probably be a revolution of some kind, although revolution ends up being a minority view even among the radicals), and so we can’t really understand the stakes, or the urgency, or the vision of an alternative. The East’s radicalism is an empty frame; we know its shape but we don’t know what it contains.

Focusing The East’s attention on sinister corporations rather than consumer society itself sugar-coats the film’s limited politics for easy consumption. There is no risk, in The East, of the audience feeling at all implicated, unless a group of homicidal chief executives wander into the wrong theater. The East points no fingers out from the screen; perpetrators are clearly identified so that viewers can comfortably sit in judgment, conflicted about sentencing but undisturbed by questions of relative guilt. When mainstream society is largely exempted from a radical group’s righteous anger, it’s a good bet that group’s politics are not so extreme after all.

The politics of The East, in fact, are not much more radical than Bambi. The dark force in that iconic Disney film is represented by hunters who first shoot and kill Bambi’s mother and then accidentally set fire to the forest. For children raised in cities or suburbs it’s shocking to imagine people going into the woods and blasting away at gentle, talking deer or carelessly setting trees alight. That’s the point, though; most people don’t hunt and fewer still incinerate forests, so it’s possible to watchBambi without feeling any personal guilt. The forest, in Bambi, is a wilderness far away from everyday human habitation, a place where right and wrong are easy to discern. Some people walk deep into the wilderness with guns and shoot at animals, and some don’t.

Another childhood film brings the death of anthropomorphized animals much closer to home. In Watership Down, the talking rabbits don’t inhabit a wilderness but an agrarian countryside where the threats are those of people going about their daily routines: roads, fences, domesticated dogs and cats, and in the film’s equivalent of the forest fire from Bambi, bulldozers plowing over a field to create a new subdivision. It’s impossible to watch Watership Down and not have a sense of association with the dangers the rabbits confront. Children watching the film understand that it is their world the rabbits are running from.

There is none of that sense in The East. If anything, there is the opposite; the crimes that The East try to redress are so outrageous that viewers can feel comforted by having nothing to do with them. They take place in the wilderness of corporate boardrooms far away from our own backyards. The East don’t have any problem with us.

the eastThe other main strategy that The East employs to hide its politics is to personalize them. Both of the group’s actions (they call them “jams”) originate with one activist’s personal experiences. “Doc” (Toby Kebbell) took the medication that the drug company irresponsibly marketed, and prescribed it to his sister. Doc’s sister killed herself, and Doc bears the drug’s painful side effects. “Izzy” (Ellen Page) chooses to go after the energy company because her father works in one of its executive offices and Izzy must punish him to – as far as we can tell – reconcile her own guilt. “Benji” (Alexander Skarsgård) grew up on the estate that The East are squatting, inheriting it after his parents drowned in front of him.

the frying panThe group’s off-the-grid communalist anarchism turns out to be a way for Benji to reimagine his own upbringing. In The East activists are motivated by their personal demons as much as by any objective theory of justice. This makes for good Hollywood moviemaking because the characters can have big reveals, and emotional confrontations, and long gazes into the distance. But it makes for lousy politics. The more the movie presents its characters as responding to difficult personal experiences and unhappy childhoods, the more it suggests that this, rather than reasoned consideration of disparities in power and harm, is what leads to radicalism. In the simple arithmetic of this film’s sense of morality, a radical act on one side of the equals sign must be balanced by some personal, internal strife on the other. There is no sense that concerned citizens might take a clear, sober look at modern society and consider it fundamentally untenable. The East’s politics are more subjective than objective, more narrow than broad, more Freud than Marx.

Despite all this, the film is somehow obligated to disavow whatever vague radicalism it has toyed with. In the final scene, Sarah (Brit Marling), the undercover agent who infiltrated The East and was nearly seduced by its non-politics, goes after corporate badguys on her own, through legitimate channels. Wrongs are exposed, polluters are shut down, and responsible parties are dealt with. Conventional methods work. There is no indication of what happens to the many other companies that are presumably breaking the law too, or to the other polluters that will likely replace those that have shut down, but maybe other Sarahs will pursue them. Maybe not. Larger questions like these are not really The East’s concern, because they are not finally The East’s concern. Character arcs reconciled, the film and the group can fade into black. So much for radicalism.

Keith Woodhouse
The Frying Pan

Tuesday, 3 June 2013

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