Film: The East

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 na├»ve, 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.

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