Timing can transform a good movie into a memorable one. Such is the case with the thriller “The East,” released just as we were waking up to the revelation, thanks to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, that the National Security Agency (N.S.A) has been spying on us, collecting data for seven years on every phone call, domestic and international, that Americans make. The reason given is that same tired trope: To keep us secure from terrorists. (Naturally, the recent Boston Bombing was an exception, as is every other undetected act of terror!)
In the movie, Sarah (Brit Marling) is an undercover agent hired by a private intelligence firm to infiltrate an eco-terrorism cell called “The East.” East consists of a band of furious idealists (Sarah and her employer see them as anarchists) who target pharmaceutical companies that unleash poisonous medicines on vulnerable people and conglomerates that pollute our air, water and soil. (Remember the deadly antibiotic called Fluoroquinolones, or the 2010 BP oil spill, or the arsenic poisoning of water in Small Town, U.S.A, from coal slurry and other industrial wastes?) The group’s manifesto: “We are the East. Lie to us and we’ll lie to you. Spy on us and we’ll spy on you. Poison us and we’ll poison you.” (In this, they are the heir to the late Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey-Wrench Gang.)
It is that “spy on us and we’ll spy on you” motif that has made “The East” such a compelling draw in the wake of the N.S.A spying revelations. Of course, citizens cannot snoop on the government but if a movie can offer a willing suspension of disbelief in these troubled times, we eagerly lap it up.
Other members are suspicious of Sarah but the infiltrator wins over the East’s enigmatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and proceeds to destroy the group from within. Yet, imperceptibly, she is also drawn to the justice inherent in the retaliation against the one-percenters who are callously indifferent to the death and destruction they inflict on the marginalized and the powerless through poisonous pills and polluted water.
It is one thing to remain silent when facts are unknown but another when facts are known and we cannot quiet that “still small voice” any longer. It is a moral dilemma we all face in one form or another and which defines us, based on what we end up doing or not doing.
The Internet has undoubtedly facilitated the growth of the surveillance state. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Internet is the de facto surveillance state, that with every click and blog and email and likes and tweets, we leave behind digital traces that can be used against us at the whim of people in power.
About the intrusion of Big Brother, the increasingly relevant George Orwell wrote in “1984”: “How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.”
About one thing, however, Orwell was wrong, when he wrote in “1984”: “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” We do not have the luxury of such ignorance anymore: We now know that we are being watched and tracked at any given moment.
Greenwald and The Washington Post revealed another secret program under George Bush, code-named Prism, that allows the N.S.A. and the F.B.I. to tap Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, copying audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails and documents to track foreign targets.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” President Obama assured Americans after the snooping report broke. He also defended the “program” by shrugging it off as a “modest encroachments on privacy,” justified because, as always, it will “help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
America will not turn into a totalitarian police state along the lines of, say, East Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. At the same time, we must also remember that we cannot remain secure by undermining those values that make us Americans.
Ultimately for Sarah, the end cannot justify the means, and so there is a falling out between the protagonists in “The East.” But it is by no means an unsatisfactory falling out. There is pathos and surprise and moral ambiguity aplenty in the thriller. Particularly in matters of morality, we learn that it does not have to be an either-or proposition, that there is almost always a middle path in which justice can flower when we make an effort to engage our better angels.