Film: The East

January 16, 2014

I watched The East (2013) because, well, how could I not watch a film called The East? It’s also a spy movie, of sorts, and a pretty good one.

Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stars as Jane, a promising young recruit for a private intelligence firm. She gets her big break when the firm’s chief (Patricia Clarkson) selects her for a high-profile assignment: infiltrating an eco-terrorist group called “the East,” which has been waging guerilla PR warfare against major corporations. Under the cover name Sarah, she works her way into position to become a recruit, finds her way to the East’s hidden base of operations, and starts to sympathize with their cause.

If I were to revise the Spy 100 list, I would definitely add The East, particularly for the variety it brings: private intelligence contracting, eco-terrorism, and corporate espionage are unique angles that the film deploys well. The first half of the film is the most effective, when the mystery is still hazy and Sarah’s investigation drives the pace. The culture of the eco-terrorist group (“the East”) is a weird sort of hippy-dippy extremism, but it’s entertainingly rendered, and populated by nicely played and sympathetic characters. The players — Alexander Skarsgard, Elliot Page, Toby Kebbell, Aldis Hodge, and others — do a nice job selling the group’s mission and community.

Alas, later the seams start to show. The film’s anti-corporate, environmental message is a bit obvious, for one thing. While the script tries to paint Sarah as a moderate, caught between wanting to stop the East’s dangerous stunts and seeing the point of them, she does come off as pretty naïve, especially when Clarkson, in a wonderfully callous performance, reveals how she does business.

So it’s well performed, with a strong premise and a quick pace, and the mystery engages, but unfortunately it lacks subtlety and its virtuous message is a little too preachy. The drawbacks didn’t exactly squelch my enjoyment, but they did mitigate my enthusiasm.

  • Ted January 16, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    I thought the trailer was very interesting, but was quite disappointed by the movie itself.

    (spoiler warning)

    The depiction of corporate malfeasance was absurdly crude. No drug with a serious risk of neurological damage could get FDA approval. (And is it really in a pharmaceutical company’s interest to induce neurological damage in a significant percentage of the U.S. military?) Likewise, the idea that drinking water would have so much arsenic in it that a mother had to limit her children’s bath time (before they died of cancer) is embarrassing scientifically illiterate. The screenwriters should have tried reading a book on the subject beforehand; even a magazine article would have helped.

    That aside, the plot made no sense. Clarkson wants to know what the next two jams are so she can prevent them and look like a hero. Marling finds out that a coal company is the next target, but doesn’t inform Clarkson. The jam goes forward, the coal company’s reputation is ruined. Yet the next time we see Marling, she’s being applauded by her colleagues. Why? Near the end, Skarsgaard tells Marling he knew she was an operative because their previous targets were clients of her firm. That might have made sense if the jams had failed, but they were successful. In fact, Clarkson told Marling not to stop the drug-company jam because they weren’t a client.

    And in the end, Marling’s innovative solution is to tell the media. Gee, if only someone had thought of that before.

    • Chris East January 16, 2014 at 11:51 pm

      Yikes! Maybe it’s a sign of the times that corporate malfeasance that horrific struck me as plausible… 🙂 I thought the script kind of sacrificed realism/logistics for its message, which is indeed shrill, but I didn’t know it was quite that bad.

      I’m less troubled by the plot problems…Clarkson seemed less interested in doing good (i.e., preventing the jams) than in become the go-to player in corporate eco-terrorist intel. She was playing to her clients, not necessarily the targets. I agree Jane’s endgame was weak, but it was deliberate, sending you out the door with the message.

      Oh well, it’s heart was in the right place. I’ve seen worse!

  • Ted January 17, 2014 at 12:45 am

    Sure Clarkson was purely interested in her clients. But either the coal company was her client, in which case she’d have been outraged at Marling for not stopping the jam, or it wasn’t her client, in which case Skarsgaard would have had no reason to suspect Marling of working for them. Either way, someone’s actions don’t make sense.