Georgetown alum Zal Batmanglij’s (COL ’02) second film, The East, explores this blurry ethical territory through the lens of anti-corporatism as it attempts to weave together the plots of a thoughtful, quiet indie film and a tense spy thriller, and is for the most part successful. With fellow Hoya Brit Marling (COL ’05), who co-wrote and stars in the film, he tells the story of Sarah Moss, an FBI agent turned private intelligence operative, who infiltrates an eco-terrorist organization that calls itself The East in an attempt to protect her firm’s clients from the movement’s attacks.
Once she’s fully embedded in the cell and sees the fight from the perspective of its members, Moss begins to question her own allegiances and the mechanics of a world she previously took for granted. She also sees the members of The East in a new light, particularly, the group’s mysterious founder and leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård from True Blood), with whom she begins an affair that ultimately leads to the demise of the comfortable relationship she had before she was assigned to The East.
Underneath the film’s activist exterior emanates a message about integrity and acting with the courage of your convictions no matter where they take you. Crack the occasionally too-thin veneer of taking down cartoonishly evil CEOs and sticking it to The Man, you’ll find a character study of the almost absurdly self-assured.
The East gives the audience several different portraits of confident, driven people, and then begins to poke holes in them to see where they bleed and if they break. Marling’s Sarah, and Skarsgård’s Benji, are joined by equally strong performances from Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell who create intricate and compelling characters whose own stories propel the plot forward and are almost more interesting than the espionage and intrigue provided by Marling and Skarsgård.
The score and the editing of the film give The East a more art-house feel than your ordinary action flick, and these two elements—the rich, thought-provoking narrative and edgier thriller streaks—vie for the audience’s attention. Batmanglij spends time developing characters in a way that seems out of place in a pure suspense film, dragging them and the viewers in and out of intense action. Although the score helps ease the transitions, the characters shift from one world to the other not altogether seamlessly. The film’s structure suffers because of these jarring sojourns into more cerebral, pensive subplots in an otherwise tense thriller.
Overall, these hiccups are forgiven because of the superb acting quality and an undeniably engaging story. If it does nothing else to help the film, the jerky pacing certainly keeps the viewer guessing as to where the story is going next. In a manner true to the educational mission at Georgetown, The East leaves the answers to the questions it poses about contradictions in capitalist society ambiguous. Left to ponder the opposing sides of the ideological war at its core, you cannot help but wonder exactly where the middle road is.