The East (PG-13) (116 min.) — Debate sparked by recent National Security Agency leaks — is Edward Snowden a traitor or hero? — is coincidentally echoed in The East, the second collaboration between director Zal Batmanglij and his co-writer-star Brit Marling.
The East is also about a cult of sorts, named for an anarchist collective waging ecoterrorism on corporations endangering the public. Their first act of protest is simple trespassing and vandalism, dumping crude oil in the home of an industrialist after a BP-level spill. Later the group's tactics turn toward the deadly, as stakes rise with chemical and pharmaceutical poisonings. An eye for an eye, as the East's credo proclaims.
Marling plays Sarah, an undercover agent working for a security firm hired by corporations to prevent such protests. Hand-picked by the firm's steely supervisor (Patricia Clarkson), Sarah infiltrates the East, sharing their communal, counterculture lifestyle — like hippies with a cause — and eventually assisting their "jams," as the revenge plots are called. Leading the East is Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), a lean and hungry sort complicating Sarah's mission.
Marling and Batmanglij's screenplay is a model of moral and ethical conflict in a medium where heroes and villains are typically sharply defined. There is never any doubt that the corporations in question put greed before the public good and should be found out, or that the East is a criminal organization whose members deserve jail time. Which side commits the larger sin? Snowden's lawyers and prosecutors could present this movie as a jury selection tool, should he ever go to court.
Marling's subtle expression of complex characters never ceases to fascinate. Sarah is her most conflicted role so far, and it's tough detecting if she's playing along with the East to protect her cover or buying into their anarchist mentality. Batmanglij keeps that mystery humming, suspenseful and tight. The movie loses steam and credibility when protest turns personal but until then The East is a crackling thriller and a political statement tough to peg. A- (Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar, BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg, Citrus Park 20 in Tampa)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic