by Jennifer Epps
Two fiction films about domestic left-wing terrorist groups played in theaters this spring, and are interesting to consider together, since these indy thrillers approach similar themes. Robert Redford’s film The Company You Keep is new on DVD this week. The East will be released on DVD next month, on Sept. 17th.
In The East, a film showcased at the Sundance Festival, co-writer and up-and-coming star Brit Marling plays Sarah, a young private-sector spy keen to do well for her agency. She has to keep her assignments so secret she tells her nearest and dearest she’s off to Dubai when really she’s just a drive away in the deep woods, infiltrating a troublesome band of youthful anti-corporate eco-terrorists. She lives with them, learns their ways, and becomes assimilated in order to uncover their schemes to disrupt big business – a service much coveted by those same businesses. But the experience is so intense, this monkey-wrench gang gradually starts to change her. Whenever the unit temporarily disbands and she heads back to her normal city life, she feels like she has come back from a foreign country, only now it’s her home that feels foreign.
The East is named after the fictitious anarchist collective Sarah spies on — a mysterious, much-hyped group of rebels out to punish mega-corps which heartlessly destroy the planet or poison masses of human beings. The movie is many things – spy caper, romance, psychological drama, crime thriller, coming-of-age story, animal-friendly environmentalist lament – but it is perhaps predominantly a journey-to-another-world. Like Alice or Dorothy, once covert agent Sarah slips into the woods, she finds herself in an alien, Looking-Glass world. There are no surreal talking animals in this universe, but with the very first initiation rite Sarah can see she’s “not in Kansas anymore” – and that she’s out of her element. Tough as nails and primed for a fight, Sarah is astonished to discover that battle isn’t really the point here among all the soul-baring and trust exercises.
Of course, Sarah is a stand-in for the audience, so Marling and writing partner Zal Batmanglij (the film’s director) peel away the outer layers of the forest-dwelling radicals incrementally, letting us first see them the way she would. The most immediately alienating is Benji (an ardent Alexander Skarsgård), who comes off at first as a Charles Manson-like cult leader. His hair is archaically, kiddingly, long, and he appears to hold a privileged status in the commune-like encampment from which he delights in breaking newcomers’ spirits. Then there’s diminutive Izzy (Ellen Page), so solemn and ideologically fierce she seems like the most potentially dangerous. And though the group turns to Doc (Toby Kebbell) for medical help, his manner and his simple home remedies are so unorthodox his ministrations seem likely to do more harm than good. Yet before too long Benji’s wild tresses have been shorn, Izzy has revealed her soft side, Doc’s qualifications have been affirmed, and we, along with Sarah, have gained insights into this band’s traumas, regrets, and vision.
Though Batmanglij and Marling disapprove of these activists’ tactical choices when they injure others, we can see, eventually, how much respect they have for the young outliers’ heartfelt motivations, and for their willingness to explore an alternate form of living. Rather than just showing the surface trappings of counterculture, The East tries to get inside all this experimental living and find out what it’s really all about. (Marling and Batmanglij were inspired to write the film because they spent a few months living with squatting freegans.) And often the script is quite deft in the economical way it scores its points. The first dinner at the East’s remote hideout is a clever, visual way to show the group’s internal philosophy of interdependence. Then, at a climactic juncture, Sarah finds herself impulsively eating from a trashcan to illustrate the principles of freeganism – it’s a perfect merger of story, theme, character revelation, and eloquent speech-writing. It’s also a moment of humor/suspense that works beautifully.
Kudos are definitely due to Batmanglij and Marling for navigating a minefield with this kind of story: they could have easily fallen into preachiness either for or against their characters. Instead, Benji’s lynchpin character is variegated enough for Sarah and the audience to change our opinion of him in each of the film’s three acts. Likewise Sarah’s boss at the agency, the wonderful Patricia Clarkson, is never a cartoon but moves deliciously from mentor to formidable opponent.
The East doesn’t make us choose between collectivism and the power of one – it honors both. Its slight of build yet tightly-coiled heroine – thanks to a visceral performance by the ferociously intelligent Marling — is a mesmerizing protagonist. She’s no latex-squeezed, ultra-competent action-heroine, but is instead serious and resourceful, sensitive and relatable, and she pays a high cost for her achievements. But after learning about harmony, equality, and unity from the rebels, she comes out the other side as an exemplar of the idea that one person can make a difference. It is thanks to her dynamic character that the film is able to pull off its balancing act, conveying the notion that: in questions of morality, even when the goals are harmony, equality, and unity, perhaps one’s own conscience is the only reliable arbiter.
Along the way, Marling and Batmanglij expose something that gets very scant attention – corporate spying on citizen activists – and at a time when Edward Snowden has made people more conscious of the extent to which our communications are being captured as a matter of course, this film couldn’t be more timely. Without lecturing (except briefly, in the sequence where Izzy confronts her CEO dad), The East manages to convey searing criticism of current business as usual in the U.S. of A. It is one of the most eloquent and vital movies indicting late capitalism you could hope to see, underpinning its twisty, surprising climax with the burning philosophical problem: how can we save the world?
The film provides no easy answers but is on the side of the angels — it promotes, without spelling it out too much, mutual respect, co-operation, open-mindedness, and educating the public. It is clear that Batmanglij and Marling believe in film as a force for social change. But they also realize that to be effective they must be disciplined in providing us with compelling characters, a gripping conflict, and a tight story structure. They deliver all that in spades. The East lays down the gauntlet for other fiction filmmakers to retain a strong point-of-view on hot political topics and make an exciting entertainment to boot.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival gave Batmanglij and Marling’s film its premiere, and Redford even cast Marling in a pivotal supporting role in his own film The Company You Keep — clearly he wasn’t concerned about the similarities between the two indies, though they were released within weeks of each other this spring. There certainly are similarities, though. The East and The Company You Keep are both thought-provoking political thrillers about a small group of domestic left-wing militants who are designated as terrorists by authorities. Both show the radicals’ driving forces to be reactions against mass-scale atrocities perpetrated by those in power. And both films clearly condemn violence as a tool of political resistance.
Still, Redford’s film has its own precedents. It seems to make sense to view The Company You Keep as the third film in a Redford trilogy about the ‘War on Terror’. I haven’t heard him describe any such trilogy, but Redford’s last three films seem very much concerned with the post 9/11 era and the direction the country has taken. The first, Lions for Lambs (2007), was a politically laudable but artistically dull and didactic Bush-era anti-war screed. The second, the superb and moving drama The Conspirator (2010), was set in the maelstrom right after Lincoln’s assassination yet was indisputably modern in its portrait of the oppressiveness of railroading military tribunals like those Bush had brought into the fore as part of the ‘War on Terror.’ Most of the referents in Redford’s third film of the trilogy, The Company You Keep, are to the 1960’s and 1970’s, but the film is set in modern times, and its subject matter is terrorism, unjust war, and dissent. No doubt it wasn’t just a historical exercise.
The Company You Keep, like Redford’s prior two films, is the story of an older man, an educated liberal, who mentors an antagonistic or disengaged young upstart. In Lions for Lambs it was Redford as a university prof teaching apathetic student Andrew Garfield to care more about what his government is up to; in The Conspirator it was Tom Wilkinson handing over a complex defense case to Civil War veteran James McAvoy. Here it is Redford once again, as an aging attorney who is an upstanding citizen working for the public good. He scolds cocky rookie reporter Ben (Shia LaBeouf) – even while fleeing him half-way across the country. The chase begins because LaBeouf’s ambitious stringer discovers that Redford’s small-town lawyer is a big-time outlaw, an ex-member of a militant 1960’s group, and a fugitive from the FBI because of his secret terrorist past.
The mentoring dynamic throughout Redford’s trilogy may simply be a natural outcome of Redford being in his 70’s and being highly successful, sought-after, and opinionated. Yet, if there’s one overriding aspect of Company which prevents it from being truly politically effective, it might be the film’s underlying ageism – an elevation of those politicos over 60 and a patronizing slant on the uninformed under-40s. The movie evinces an implicit belief that Hippies were much more aware and engaged than Tweeters are. The politicized people in Company are all above a certain age (played by Redford, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Richard Jenkins, and Brendan Gleeson). By contrast, none of the young adults in the film (LaBoeuf, Marling, Anna Kendrick, and Terrence Howard, who plays an FBI agent) are politically opinionated – except, perhaps, about terrorism. The ex-hippies express passionate views in the film on current events, but the young people are more concerned with their careers, schooling, and personal lives. It’s weird that the retirement-age radicals who flee to the deep woods in Company somehow have no idea that anyone like the young rebels of The East could be hiding out too; in Company’s world, activism seems to have halted in the mid 1970s.
This isn’t to say the youngsters don’t have winning personalities. LaBoeuf’s cheeky, devious, irreverent reporter uses some of the sly techniques Redford himself used, alongside Dustin Hoffman, in All the President’s Men. He is also the Tommy Lee Jones character to Redford’s Harrison Ford, for just as in The Fugitive we find ourselves pulled in both directions, unsure whether to root for pursuer or pursued. But ultimately, the view of the press evinced by Company is that it is both shallow and overzealous: Ben’s doggedness in pursuing the ex-Weatherman is cast in a similar vein as Sally Field’s destructive investigative reporting in Absence of Malice.
Unlike the fictitious anti-corporate group living on the fringes in The East, the organization under scrutiny in Company is a real domestic terrorist organization: the infamous albeit small revolutionary group which dubbed themselves the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), formed in 1969 as a splinter of the Students for a Democratic Society. Discouraged by the failure of mass protest to end either the war in Vietnam or virulent racism at home, the Weather Underground chose to make bombs and try to overthrow the U.S. government. They were of course eschewed and condemned by the large protest movements of the time, but became more infamous.
Though the kernel of Company is based on actual history, the names of the former Weather members are fictional and the characters composites. Dramatic license is taken to fashion a mystery about decisions of the past. It is not a literal evaluation of the Weathermen, it doesn’t care about the exact details of their tactics, whether there was any discipline to their goals of property destruction (warnings were generally issued so buildings could be evacuated) or how exactly they crossed the line into violence against living beings. (There is a documentary about the Weathermen to cover that, however – Ben is even shown watching it as research in this movie.) The facts, which Company doesn’t dwell over, are that three members of the WUO died while bomb-building, and three security officers were killed during a Brinks truck robbery staged by a couple of ex- WUO members — who got sentenced to life, and 22 years, in prison. But Company is quite vague about the internal workings of WUO, or what led to the deaths of innocent people, because its characters are composites and because it doesn’t recreate the events of the fateful day – it is enough for the moral probing of the movie simply to establish that people died. There is a central mystery, but it manages to lie beyond the details of the long-ago crime; the film is not much interested in forensics, and focused instead on the human heart.
Screenwriter Lem Dobbs has adapted Neil Gordon’s novel The Company You Keep for this film. It is a book first published in 2003, long before the McCain-Palin campaign brought the Weather Underground back into the spotlight with charges that co-founder Bill Ayers knew Obama in Chicago. But the novel did emerge as Bush was laying the groundwork to make the world America’s battlefield. And like The East, this story asks the question of whether or not the ends justify the means, of whether criminally violent resistance against powerful criminals is warranted when the system itself is so violent to so many. Not too surprisingly, the answer in both films is no.
Author Gordon seems especially pissed off at the WUO: “I don’t think highly of the positions the Weather Underground took and I don’t believe that political violence was an effective or appropriate tool”, he told an interviewer. And he blames the WUO for an awful lot: “when Weather broke up SDS, which they did violently, undemocratically, and with huge cruelty, they destroyed what could have been an enormous, powerful progressive movement in this country…The American left never recovered.”
The trouble with having two back-to-back films which debate a choice between violent and non-violent resistance is that, surely, non-violence won that debate for most people long ago. It is not a major question for the millions of people who oppose corporate and imperialist agendas. Given that it sure isn’t every day that features about left-wing dissent hit the big screen, when two in the same season depict committed grassroots activism as extremist, violent militancy, there is definitely the chance of creating the wrong impression about those movements. And right-wing blowhards would love to milk that wrong impression and spread it to PETA, Greenpeace, peace marchers, and many others who try to fight the systems of cruelty and oppression the right would like to protect.
Of course, that is not what any of these filmmakers would want. Neil Gordon argues: “There is a great pathos to the history of the American left. Its death is the saddest story of our country…[W]hen we look at it from the vantage of today, where America, for all its power, has near–pariah status throughout the world, it can only make us long for the lost ideals of our country.” Both films want to take a complex view, to mourn the wasted opportunities for change when people with noble motives abandon core principles. Both of them keep alive the idea that an unjust system and the need for resistance still remain.
The flaw with the approach of nostalgia and bitter regret in Company is that though the characters may find clarity, they don’t offer much of a solution to the audience – beyond an assertion that parents should take care of their children. (Despite his age, Redford’s character is often shown, in rather cloying scenes, as a dutiful father to a prepubescent daughter, and his commitment is a pillar of the film.) It’s true that nothing requires art to provide solutions, and often asking questions or exposing problems is enough. But we are dealing with the future of the planet and human civilization, and it would be nice to have something to go on. I get that the theme of Company is the importance of taking personal responsibility, and that this could very well be interpreted as a responsibility to become more active and engaged. But the metaphor of progeny-over-politics could also make any conservative family-values champion proud – they might not admit it, but that message is right up their alley. It is also, whether intentionally or not, a kind of argument in favor of disengagement.
The East takes a different approach from The Company You Keep in many ways. The characters feel rawer and more immediate. It’s less reserved, and it has a more youthful energy. And it has more relevance in the issues it presents: it’s about the state of the union right now, and the examples of corporate lawlessness targeted by the East’s members are loosely based on true recent instances. But perhaps the most important difference of all is that The East suggests at the very end – fleetingly and delicately – a way out of this mess of corporate mayhem and crimes against humanity. And that, ultimately, is a discussion well worth having.