When profit seduces a company into harming the environment, how should we respond? Do we simply fine them and require them to clean it up, making it a “cost of doing business” type of decision, or should we hold the board and executive officers personally accountable? If we do the former and not the latter and these leaders calculate the business cost and decide the profit is worth the business expense, have we adequately protected ourselves and our planet from their greed? If our regulatory and legal systems are not effective, is it ethical to take “an eye for an eye” and cause these unethical leaders to personally experience the health consequences they have forced upon others? These are the issues addressed in Zal Batmanglij’s film, with the last question answered in the affirmative by an eco-terrorist group called TheEast for which the film is named.
A complex and well-developed tale, the screenplay was written by Batmanglij and the star of the film, Brit Marling. Casting herself as undercover agent Jane Owen/Sarah who works for a private firm protecting corporations from attacks, she is a proven operative who is assigned to infiltrate the eco-terrorist group by her savvy and compassionless boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). A former FBI agent, Sarah is naïve about the corporations she is protecting and vulnerable to the charms of The East group’s leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). The East also includes Izzy (Ellen Page), Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), Thumbs (Aldis Hodge), Tess (Danielle Macdonald) and Eve (Hillary Baack).
The East’s sincerity and commitment is due to their personal experiences of the harmful effects of the toxic medicines and wastes produced by the corporations. This is seen directly in Doc (Toby Kebbell). Doc is a physician who prescribed an antibiotic to himself and his sister while they were doing relief work in Africa. The $1.4 billion profit that the pharmaceutical company is making on that drug is considered to be worth the side-effects that many of its users experience, including Doc and his sister. Left with tremors that make it impossible for him to practice medicine, Doc sets out to hold the president and board members accountable with the help of the other members of The East. In similar but unique ways, this is true for each of them as well. We won’t reveal the various ways in which every member of The East is personally affected by these corporations’ greed and how they act to hold their CEOs accountable, but their stories and terrorist actions make this story compelling as well as suspenseful.
What also makes the film intriguing is that this terrorist group is more like a hippy commune of the 1960s than a terrorist cell of the 2000s. Using group dynamics designed to break down each individual’s personal boundaries, which was a common though unhealthy group practice during that era, The East plays games of spin-the-bottle with erotic and homoerotic aspects as well as bathing one another. Although the film is PG-13 and shows these scenes with reservation, the cultic nature is not lost on the audience.
The ethical issues involved are obvious and challenging. The basic principle that businesses should choose to be ethical in their treatment of the environment and impact on their neighbors is voiced in a speech by Thumbs who describes how the group will treat those companies who do not choose to do so. When Benji quotes the Biblical reference of an “eye for an eye” – and adds, “no more and no less”, Thumbs says that since the waste of the company cost some people their lives, then The East should take the life of the CEO. His zealous attitude is challenged but his point is made.
The religious undertone of Sarah’s former life is subtle and intriguing. Wearing a cross and listening to Christian radio as she drives to her work in Washington, D.C., Sarah is challenged ethically, spiritually, morally and finally finds her way through a troubling morass. The East is a fascinating film in every way and worthy of adult viewing and discussion.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. If you knew that a company in your town is poisoning the environment for profit, what would you do? Have you ever been aware of such an issue in your own town? Did you get involved?
2. What are you doing to hold those who are harming our planet accountable? How are you a part of the problem and how are you a part of the solution?
3. Like most cult leaders, Benji uses his good looks and manipulative charm to influence his group. How do you protect yourself from those who “woo” you by personal charisma to get you to do what they want, whether they are a date, a salesman or a leader in your life?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.