Stories revolving around spies and dangerous covert operations have always held a definitive appeal for people. After all it’s the perfect platform for excitement; intrigue and seduction that most of the elements generally considered to be required for a successful movie are rather easy to incorporate them into this highly charged setting. Although the overwhelming popularity of the James Bond and Jason Bourne franchises has turned espionage movies into big blockbusters demanding huge budgets. ‘The East’ is the independent film community’s offering into the genre and needless to say it was made on a budget that wouldn’t cover the trailer rental on a Bond movie, a reported $6.5 million. In this film the onus has been shifted from reliance on gadgets and perfectly choreographed fight sequences to the emotional and psychological toll extracted on the individuals playing the deadly game of spy versus spy.
Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) has garnered a distinct expertise in the subtitles of investigative methods during her tenure with the FBI. She left her posting there to pursue a new career in the private sector as an operative for the intelligence firm Hiller Brood. The head of the operation is a methodical woman; Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), dedicated to protect her lucrative corporate client’s .Sarah is displaced to Dubai and is taken to the Dulles Airport by her boyfriend, Tim (Jason Ritter) for her flight. This is the first of a long string of ruses and subterfuge that run through the film. Rather than going through the security checkpoint Sarah ducks out and catches a cab to a non-descript motel. The real purpose of the deceit begins to be disclosed. In a room in the motel Sarah begins the transformation in to a type of undercover agent referred to as a ‘traveler’. The life she had before entering that room evaporated as she emerges with a new identity. Her assignment is to infiltrate an underground activist group called ‘The East’.
Sarah throws herself into her mission searching for a means to contact the group and insert herself into their ranks. Find a group of indigents she believes have a connection with ‘The East’. Cutting her own arm she weaves a story that she just jumped the fence to evade the rail yard security. The ruse works, to some extent. Sarah is taken to Doc (Toby Kebbell) for treatment and told she has two days to recover before having to leave. When one of the group’s goes missing Sarah manages to be included in the next mission, called a ‘Jam’, to fill in for the absent member. The purpose of these excursions is to forward criminal ecological activism. The one Sarah was involved with targeted a big pharmaceutical company and was executed with such efficiency that is impressed Sarah. Gradually Sarah begins to view the group in a different, more sympathetic light. Reinforcing this change of heart is her growing attraction to one of the group’s members, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). When she discovers that each member of the group has been personally harmed by amoral corporate behavior she willing participates in the next jam. One example that demonstrates this is in the backstory of Izzy (Ellen Page). Her father is the CEO of major petrochemical company. Izzy uses her connection to apprehend her father forcing him to bathe in a body of water his company utilizes for their illegal toxic waste dumping.
Although there is a modicum of action here it is on a level significantly lower than most fans of the spy genre are accustomed to viewing. The greatest strength of this movie goes to the underlying raison d'etre of independent film; to tell emotionally genuine stories that would not be undertaken by the major studios. Supplanting the typical high octane roller coaster ride most movies of this sort rely on his an honest exploration of a young woman trapped between two diametrically opposed worlds. She entered her mission with conviction, purposed to not only do her job but to, in some fashion, make a positive impact. There is an old saying that cautions, "Be careful what you pretend, it might become real." For Sarah this adage became reality. Apparently the ring of honesty imbued in this movie is derived by the personal experiences of the star and co-screenwriter, Brit Marling. Another hallmark of Indy movies is this personal impetus for creating it. You just don’t get this degree of emotional veracity in a Borne extravaganza.
In the vast majority of spy flicks there is little is any character development. Bond is the same character after a mission as before albeit with a scar or two added. The crux of this story is the emotional journey that Sarah was forced to undertake. She had to tread a fine line between pretending to be and what she truly believes. There was not a specific tipping point that changed her allegiance; that occurred gradually as the undercover operative is exposed to the reasons others under took this outlaw existence. The personal motivations began to exert a cumulative effect on Sarah until she came to the realization that the real villains are the clients of the firm employing her. They misused their wealth and influenced only to hide behind her company for protection.
It might seem the romantic element was gratuitous, used to insert the ‘True Blood’ heart throb, Alexander Skarsgård, into the mix but that would be a great disservice to the creativity embodied in this. It helped to establish Sarah ass a woman guided by her passions not an agent that performs her assignment not caring about the lives involved. It also made the transformation easier to elucidate within the context of the story and the constraints of the running time. The screenplay by Ms Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who also directed, is tightly written moving directly into the heart if the story avoiding the usual extraneous sidetracks. The characters are believable, three dimensional people that are readily identifiable permitting the audience to form a sympathetic understanding of their motives if not their methods. This creative team took on cults in the brilliant ‘Sound of my Voice’ and Ms Marling wrote and directed the poignant ‘Another Earth’ staring in all of her films. she is rapidly becoming a force to reckon with in the independent film community and someone to watch.
Examining The Moral Gray