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A Brief Review of "The East" / Bad Representations of Politics in Film

One of the things I most hate about the movie Rent is that it consists of characters that I should sympathize with and politics that I should agree with, but it manages to make all of them repulsive.

I'm liberal to the core, the sort of tree-hugging hippie jerk that will turn his nose up at a car that gets any less than 30 mpg, a self-righteous douche that will rail against health insurance companies and preach for full-on Socialized Medicine, a sleazy libertine that believes we should all have the freedom to marry ten men and women apiece while getting unemployment benefits and six weeks of government-mandated paid vacation a year.

And those motherfuckers in Rent make my gut churn.  When I think about Rent, I want to vote Republican.  You hear that, Chris Columbus?  You did this to me, you rat-bastard.

Why am I railing against Rent again?  Well, it's because I recently saw The East, another movie about a group of people who I should sympathize with, but who get under my skin instead.

The East is about a group of anarchists called "The West East," who seek vengeance against powerful groups who have committed wrongdoings against the world and seem to be beyond reproach.  Say a power-plant dumps toxic chemicals into a town's water supply, which leads to children contracting cancer.  The East will do what they can to make the owner of said power-plant get cancer, too.  (You know, like sprinkling cancer dust on their toothbrush.)

The idea is that a high-end private security firm sends out a field agent to infiltrate The East and learn their secrets, because The East is so incredibly elusive and tech-savvy that they've remained completely off the FBI's radar.  All of this may change when Sarah (Brit Marling), a former FBI agent and recent hire, succeeds at becoming part of The East's inner circle of strategists.

The movie is actually well-made overall, so I don't want to come across as though I hated it.  I thought it was a terrific film as far as the acting and direction was concerned, and the writing was mostly good with only a few odd choices.  (Most bizarre to me was the idea that Sarah's arc should be that she's arrogant and needs to be humbled - at no point in the story is she anything but the smartest and most morally upstanding character, so any "arrogance" on her part is more than deserved.  She also has a boyfriend played by Jason Ritter who might as well have not been in the story.  It would've worked far better if Sarah was a loner who was so focused on her career that she had no time for human interactions until The East awakes a passion within her, and this in turn would be what drives her to make the decisions she carries out in the end.  But this is beside the point.)

What I wanted to write whine about today was the way the movie made The East look awful for all the wrong reasons.

This is a movie where you're supposed to sympathize with The East's politics.  They are a good-natured group of people who are accepting of various ways of life.  They believe in standing up for "the little guy" and promoting everybody's right to be in control of their own destiny.  They believe in ending waste and environmental destruction.  These are all good things that I think most people could get behind.

The central conflict is supposed to be a matter of morality.  The East is committed to achieving justice by any means necessary, up to and including violence.  Sarah is more committed to non-violence - even though she doesn't know it yet.  It is a conflict that should echo the Malcolm X vs MLK debate.

Unfortunately, this conceit is overshadowed by The East's more unusual and standoffish habits.  They take soap-less baths in a grungy river.  They play touchy-feely games to explore intimacy communication skills.  They are freegans.  These are not inherently bad things on their own, but they are characteristic of a counter-culture lifestyle that is off-putting for a lot of people.  Maybe in thirty years we'll look at this and say, "Yeah, so?"  But for now, this is all a bunch of "gross hippy stuff."  When you add it all together, you end up with a group that doesn't have as much allure as it really needs in order for the story to hit home.

The end result is that the dilemma Sarah is supposed to have - "I'm torn between The East's love and the cruelty of their tactics" - seems to be a no-brainer.  It comes across as "I'm torn between hanging out with a miserable bunch of antisocial jerks who live in squalor and want to kill people versus trying to achieve the same goals in a much more palatable way."  Where's the tension?  Where's the ambiguity?

The worst of this has to be Ellen Page's character, a psychopathic hipster chick who dropped out of an Ivy League college to dick around in the woods because it would be "cool."  You know that song, "Common People?"  She's the person that song is about.  I want to slap her in the face during this movie.  Every time she wrinkles her nose and smugly throws out an accusation, I just want the compound to go up in flames.  Guess what, Izzy?  I actually had to work for my money, you goddamn whiner.  Let the fire burn!

The thing is, in real life I would totally sympathize with The East.  The beliefs they espouse are important and are unfortunately misunderstood much of the time.  We need to get people to be against authority in all forms, whether government or corporate, in order to effect positive change.  But if you're dressing up your message this way, how are you going to convince the right people?