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Washington Post
“The East” is the second collaboration between actress Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij.

‘The East’ hooks viewers with dilemmas

Audiences had a surprising reaction to “The East” when it debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January. While a typical moviegoer makes a break for the exits the instant the credits roll, nearly everyone in the theater stuck around for a post-show discussion with the filmmakers and cast.

“I hate Q&As. They make me feel awkward,” said the film’s director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij during a recent visit to Washington, his home town. “So I don’t get hurt if people leave the Q&A, because I understand. But we had a 98 percent retention at Sundance.”

Incredulous at the high numbers, Batmanglij and his longtime friend Brit Marling, the film’s co-writer and star, thought perhaps people wanted to hear from the movie’s big-name actors, such as Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard. But the same thing happened – without Page and Skarsgard – in Ann Arbor, Mich., Philadelphia and other stops around the country. The lights went up, and the audience remained. Filmgoers might not have agreed on their feelings about “The East,” but they had one thing in common: They needed to talk about it.

That’s no doubt in part due to the moral ambiguity of the film, which is the second collaboration between Batmanglij, 32, and Marling, 30. (They also worked together in last year’s “The Sound of My Voice.”) Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent working as an intelligence gatherer for a private contractor near Washington. She is assigned to embed herself with an anarchist group called the East that dishes out poetic justice to executives at pernicious corporations. For example, the chief executive of an oil company responsible for a massive spill might find his house oozing petroleum.

Sarah dutifully labors under her false identity until she realizes that her own company, Hiller Brood, might be as malicious as either the anarchists or the large corporations the collective targets.

“She finds out what is right and what is wrong are completely switched, and we enter this moral gray zone,” Marling said. “(It’s) like the time we’re living in right now. It’s very hard to figure out how to live an accountable life.”

Marling and Batmanglij, who met as undergraduates at Georgetown University, tend toward the cerebral, parsing complicated issues from assorted perspectives. But there’s something about their earnest and inquisitive nature that still seems academic. They constantly pose questions to each other – or their interviewer – and rarely settle on easy answers. That helps explain why the movie has turned into such a conversation starter.

And yet, for all the film’s dilemmas, it isn’t just an erudite exercise. “The East” is an entertaining espionage thriller with all the requisite nail-biting.

“I thought that we had made something that was more challenging; and it is challenging, but it’s not challenging in a distancing way,” Marling said. “I didn’t realize how much people were going to feel invited into the film and how much they were going to need to talk about it afterwards.”

The plot of “The East” may be fictional, but it’s rooted in a very current reality where intel is gathered by private companies with a bottom line, and anarchists might take McPherson Square hostage in an attempt to picket big business.

Despite the big-issue lessons, the co-writers don’t see themselves as activists so much as distributors of little-known data. They use storytelling to edify.

“I remember when I read ‘Fast Food Nation,’ I was like, ‘Oh, thank you for giving me access to this information I just didn’t know,’ ” Marling said. “Now I’m not going to go to McDonald’s anymore. So sometimes I feel like these things are just about someone putting the information in a format that reaches people.”

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