Movie Review: The East
This movie is a must-see for any left-leaning persyn looking to kick start a revolution or join a movement for the purpose of societal change. The East is about a subversive underground movement which can best be described as a loose collection of anarchist cells focused on giving the heads of corporations that are responsible for ecological destruction a taste of their own medicine. One reference in the movie describes them as radical cells that started with Earth First! They attack big business, who they see as responsible for much of today's problems in the United $tates. Indeed, they see the principal contradiction in the United $tates as between greedy corporations that will stop at nothing to make a quick buck and the life on planet Earth that they threaten. The ideas portrayed in their propaganda videos are hard-hitting in a way that is true to the First World radical ecology movement in real life.
The potential for the radical ecology movement to be a real force for change in the First World is one reason this movie is powerful. The movie is also aesthetically pleasing on many levels (which means it's fun to watch!) and filled with political content. It has a couple big Hollywood names; none more notable than Ellen Page of Juno fame. This movie speaks mainly to the worries of today's white petty-bourgeois youth growing up in the shadows of climate change, oil spills and other mass pollution, toxic food and medicine and a consumerist society that doesn't seem to care. The characters touch on struggles with their wealth, but ultimately use their privilege to attack their enemies. They criticize Amerikans for their complacency, but see the imperialists as the ones deserving severe criticism. Similar to many radical environmental movements in the real world, there is no explicit class analysis in the movie, but The East seems potentially friendly to both a Third Worldist and a First Worldist perspective. The real positive lessons of this movie however come from its emphasis on security and organization, or lack thereof, within supposed revolutionary groups.
The East focuses on an ex-FBI agent named Jane who goes undercover for Hiller-Brood, a fictional "intelligence firm" that specializes in protecting the interests of imperialist corporations thru espionage. Jane's mission is to attempt to infiltrate The East, a so-called eco-terrorist organization that has been a thorn in the side of McCabe-Grey, a fictional corporation that specializes in producing cutting edge pharmaceuticals. Jane's assignment is to go undercover using the name Sarah, to meet and gain the trust of potential East members that Hiller-Brood has been tailing.
After a night of partying and getting to know some counter-culture types who Sarah thinks might know The East, she decides they are relatively harmless and then sneaks away in the early morning hours to pursue other potential targets, but not before snapping all their pictures and sending them back to Hiller-Brood for file building. From here on out Sarah sets out to meet some other potential targets who are older, more mysterious and hence more promising. After meeting the possible East members and train hopping with their friends, Sarah gets her first taste of pig oppression when they are forced off the train by railroad security and subsequently beaten. It is in the midst of the commotion that Sarah sees the persyn she's been following flash a badge at security - the persyn she's been following is a fed! After being left cuffed to a train Sarah makes a narrow escape from police and is rescued by one of the train-hoppers whose van she jumps into. Once inside of the van Sarah recognizes one of the symbols of The East. Convinced she is now on the right track, Sarah slices her wrist in the hopes that this guy whose van she's in will take her to The East. Her plan works, but not before he runs a quick make on her by dialing the number on her phone marked "mom."
After speaking to another Hiller-Brood agent posing as Sarah's mom, he destroys her phone, blindfolds her and takes her to a secret location in the woods; a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere. As they arrive, Sarah is introduced to "Doc" the group's resident doctor, much to the chagrin of Thumbs the group's only New Afrikan. As she is being treated Sarah discovers that Doc was once a med student. She is then drugged and put to sleep. After waking, Sarah meets Izzy, Ellen Page's character, who views Sarah with a skeptical eye. Izzy gives Sarah a straight-jacket and tells her to wear it if she wants to come down for dinner. Feeling she is now a hostage, and partly out of curiosity, Sarah reluctantly agrees to put on the jacket. Once they enter the dining room, Sarah is surprised to find the rest of the group already assembled at the table and all wearing straight jackets. At the head of the table is Benji, a bearded and eccentric looking man who reveals to Sarah that they know everything about her, her last job as a bank-teller, where she grew up, everything. All aspects of her cover identity unfortunately.
Benji then tells Sarah that she can begin eating whenever she's ready. Not knowing how to eat if she's in a straight jacket Sarah tells Benji that she's a guest and would not feel right if she started before them. To which Benji responds; "You can do what you please, but we prefer to eat after you begin." Confused and uneasy Sarah attempts to eat by slurping the soup directly from the bowl. Everyone stares at Sarah with a look of condemnation. What happens next is a "zen" moment in which everyone takes to eating by having the persyn next to them pick up the spoon with their mouth and feed them. Feeling played, Sarah storms out of the house and into the woods where Benji and company follow her and ask her to come back. Sarah responds, "For what? So you can continue to make fun of me to your followers?" Benji then explains that he doesn't have any followers. He tells her that if she'd only relied on the group, instead of selfishly trying to feed herself then she wouldn't be feeling stupid. Sarah then retorts "Why is it that self-righteousness and resistance movements always go hand in hand?" Yet it is the bourgeois and the Christians who are the most self-righteous of all, imposing their ways on others, forcing the majority to suffer for their own benefit. They criticize the masses with a false sense of superiority, while it is the job of revolutionaries to criticize the oppressor with the basic facts of their oppression. Throughout the movie, it is stressed that everything members of The East do is their own choice, and when they do do things it is organized in collective ways that challenge bourgeois individualism, such as the eating example.
Later that night Sarah is caught spying by Eve, an East member. Sarah is then forced to reveal herself to Eve, but she tells her that she is an active FBI agent, and that The East house is currently under surveillance, and that if she exposes her she'll go to jail. Eve agrees to stay quiet but flees the next day without telling anyone what she knows. The next day The East discovers that Eve has left. This throws the group's next mission into limbo. Sarah explains that she can easily fill Eve's shoes. The group takes a vote and decides to let Sarah in on the "jam" so long as her knowledge of the mission is relegated to her role. Sarah agrees.
The group's mission is to infiltrate a business party hosted by McCabe-Grey. Once inside the party their plan is to slip a supposed anti-malarial drug "Denoxin" into the drinks of some of Amerika's elites who have gathered to celebrate a contract between McCabe-Grey and the U.$. military which will make Denoxin available to Amerikan soldiers serving abroad. Denoxin's side-effects have been linked to various mental and nervous disorders as demonstrated by Doc, who took the drug after his prescription killed his sister. During the celebration the vice president of McCabe-Grey gives a speech in which she touts Denoxin as a miracle drug that will protect men and wimmin in uniform in the mission to protect Third World people from evil dictators and oppressive governments; thereby allowing them to bring "freedom and democracy" to the oppressed masses.
Sarah finds out what The East is up to and attempts to stop it, but it is too late. The East completes their mission and returns to their hideout in the woods. Back at the safe-house Sarah takes to snooping and discovers the real identities of The East members. However, her spying is cut short when they see breaking news that McCabe-Grey's vice president has begun to succumb to Denoxin's side-effects, her life in possible danger. The East panics and decides to disperse and flee back into the relative safety of the city. They all agree that should members decide to continue with the movement they should all return to the safe house in a couple weeks.
Now, back in society, undercover agent Sarah seems uncomfortable in the real world, she is no longer used to the amenities of living in a First World country. She has become accustomed to living in the woods with The East and their communal social values; she is conflicted. Though she feels troubled she returns to Hiller-Brood for debriefing. She gives up the identities of The East and expresses her concerns that another attack will occur. She pleads to have The East house raided before they disappear, but they refuse and send Sarah back for more intelligence gathering.
Sarah re-connects with The East as they are planning the next action. This time around, the mission is to get Hawkstone Energy executives (yet another fictional imperialist corporation) to admit their illegal pollution practices on camera; illegal practices that have contaminated a small town's drinking water. Benji's plan is to rationalize with the bourgeois leaders of Hawkstone into giving up their dangerous exploitation of the earth (kidnapping them and forcing them to listen), but Thumbs disagrees. Thumbs doesn't want to talk with the enemy, he wants action now. He says that these rich types don't ever respond to "intellectual bullshit, they respond to firepower!" After some heated discussion they agree to Benji's original plan where Izzy ends up dead, shot by Hawkstone security.
We cannot afford to make the focoist error of taking up armed struggle when the conditions aren't right, as the character of Thumbs attempts to do. Focoism has a long history of failure, getting good revolutionaries killed or locked up in jail. To think that armed actions will always inspire the masses towards revolutionary activity is an ultra-left and deadly, idealist mistake that has left many anti-imperialists either dead or in prison. In this sense The East has a better strategy in that they are primarily trying to stop the most powerful people from doing the damage their corporations are doing, rather than engaging in focoist actions aimed at convincing Amerikans that the corporations need to be stopped. The East may actually end up stopping some corporations, and the individuals leading them, from some of their more destructive practices. But in the end this strategy, like focoism, lacks the big picture perspective that will enable us to put an end to the environmental destruction that is inherent to capitalism. What their strategy lacks is the building of independent institutions of the oppressed that have the power to implement environmentally-friendly production methods while meeting the people's needs. While the movie shows The East building alternative culture within their collective, we must figure out how to go bigger than that to really counter the powerful corporations that are now calling the shots.
When Izzy dies, The East becomes spooked and are thrown into disarray. One member talks of abandoning the movement and Benji tries to get him to stay. Benji tells him that "a revolution is never easy, but that doesn't make it any less important," to which the deserter states, "I would betray the revolution for Izzy, that's the difference between you and me." This is an inherent weakness in petty bourgeois radical movements. When those they care about are threatened they see the comforts of petty bourgeois life as preferable to struggle. This is why the deserter is able to succumb to such individualist ways of thinking. For the proletariat, oppression is a daily reality, and death of a comrade will tend to justify further what they are doing rather than discourage. What we must fully understand however is that the success or failure of any movement does not hinge on the importance of one individual, one man, one womyn or one child; but on the stated aims of that movement and the completion of that goal, and if we stray from those principles then we are just as guilty of betraying the revolution as the deserter in the movie did.
At this point, this cell of The East splits up yet again. Back at Hiller-Brood Sarah discloses the day's events, she reports Izzy's death and claims that The East is in shambles, a perfect time to move in and arrest them all. Her advice is again ignored. She is ordered to go back. She meets with Benji, but this time pleads with him to give up the movement; partly out of her wish to prevent another attack or death, and partly because she has developed romantic feelings for him. Benji refuses and instead convinces her to take part in one last mission. She agrees because she has feelings for him and because she has now been won over to The East's cause.
On the way to the next mission Benji exposes his hand and tells Sarah that he knows she's a spy. He tells her that if she was ever down with the movement or truly had feelings for him, then she'd complete the mission and run away with him. She agrees to help. The mission is to retrieve a flash drive from the offices of Hiller-Brood that contains the names of fifty agents embedded in underground movements all across the world. Benji convinces Sarah that he only wants the list to spy on the spies; but what he really wants is to expose the agents to their organizations. She carries out the mission but when she finds out Benji's true intention she denies having stolen the flash drive. She tries to convince Benji that if they were to obtain the list it'd be better to talk the agents into giving up their careers as spies for the greater good. She argues if they only knew what they were really doing, they'd all turn just as she had. Benji refuses and they part ways. He, back to the underground, and she onto a one womyn awareness campaign.
The movie ends with clips of her talking to what appear to be other Hiller-Brood agents outside of oil refineries and power plants. The take away? Don't work outside the system in order to change it, work alongside it in order to change minds one persyn at a time.
Now let us examine this film from a Maoist perspective: "In the world today, all culture, all literature and all art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached or independent of politics." (MIM Theory 13)
This should be our attitude and guiding line when viewing or reviewing art i.e, film, literature, music, etc. Only with this attitude will we be able to see thru the bourgeoisie obfuscation of art. Furthermore; "works of literature and art, as ideological forms are products of the life of a given society." Which means that what we as a society deem to be art can only be pulled from the consciousness of society itself. Art expresses not only individual, but society's wishes, its desires, its anxieties and its perceived problems.
Now we began this review by stating that this movie was aesthetically pleasing and filled with political content. Comrade Mao taught us that the most reactionary art in class society is both high in artistic value and filled with political content. And who's political views was this movie putting forward? The bourgeoisie's of course. But even though it is a bourgeoisie product with bourgeois aims we can still learn something from it that we can apply to our own movement. Hence, we should not totally discard it.
Overall, The East is painted in a very positive light in this film, highlighting the liberatory and egalitarian aspects of the anarchist sub-culture. What we are to take away from this is Sarah benefitted and learned from that experience, but goes on to have her real impact by working among the agents of the imperialists to convince them what they are doing is wrong. The whole premise assumes that people just don't know the destruction that these corporations are doing. While the details are certainly masked from Amerikans, the information is still readily available, and a historical analysis of this country will reveal much deeper roots to reactionary politics of the Amerikan consumer nation. A more damaging storyline that would be justified by this movie, which we see time and time again in real life, is the activist who participates in radical organizing to learn and build cred and then goes on to work within the system as Sarah does when they "grow up." This movie will play well with the radical-curious, who find their life's work in NGOs, non-profits and even government agencies. The good side of this film is that it could lead people to be sympathetic to the cause of radical ecology, despite its praise of reformism. There are also some good practical lessons in this movie.
The first lesson to take away from this film is that any movement that is truly working against the interests of the imperialists will simply not be tolerated. The agents of repression are always looking to smash movements of dissent and are constantly working vigorously to infiltrate and spy on us.
Secondly, we must be cautious of who we decide to work with and who we reveal ourselves to. Simply because we meet people who seem to share our political views does not mean they are comrades and thereby privy to our organization's actions or methods of work. Within sub-cultures, having the right look and lifestyle can lead to people putting their guards down for superficial reasons. Sarah demonstrates this, and there are many real-world Sarahs whose stories have been exposed. This essentially breaks down to "better, fewer, but better." And even good comrades can be turned, which we should keep in mind as well. The bourgeoisie and their spies are highly organized and we should be too. A good way of keeping security tight within our organizations is by keeping politics in command. No one who isn't putting in work should know anything about our organizations other than what is published in the pages of Under Lock & Key and the MIM(Prisons) website. Our work should always be geared along the lines of what will be the most effective and will get us the furthest fastest. As such, security within our movement shouldn't be something we study in addition to theory, but should stem directly from it.
Thirdly, we shouldn't necessarily have to like our comrades on a persynal level. Just because we like certain people or have relative unity with them on certain issues doesn't mean we recruit based on popularity. We recruit based on the correctness of one's political line and the type of work done over a period of time. When they were around, the original Maoist Internationalist Party - Amerika was the vanguard of the communist movement in the North American continent exactly because they were composed of the communist elite. They didn't get to those positions overnight due to social networking, but because they put in the correct type of work over a sustained period. This is something else we should remember when building and re-building our movements. Thus, if we are serious about taking the socialist road then we must study and work assiduously to learn Marxist philosophy, scientific socialism and Marxist political economy so that we may integrate it into our work and apply the most correct political lines.
In conclusion, we must take art seriously and not cede the cultural wars to the bourgeoisie but must engage them on that level as well. For the bourgeoisie this movie was a hit due to its successful combination of aesthetics and politics. Therefore we must also seek to fuse the political with the artistic. Under Lock & Key already does this to a certain degree as the ULK writers struggle to make it the trenchant arm of the revolution. Right now however, what ULK lacks in artistic value it makes up in political worth, though there is much room for improvement.
Don't work alongside imperialism to change it one persyn at a time. Rather, work directly against it in order to smash it and revolutionize the world.