Spy on us, we'll spy on you.
Right off the bat, I'll say this: The Sound of my Voice was, in no way, a fluke. Marling and Batmanglij certainly have something special, and it works. What they've produced with The East is nothing groundbreaking or original, but what they have is a fluid and silky way of telling a story. It flows from start to finish, and never seems to have wandered too far out of its comfort zone. It's clear that both Marling and Batmanglij have strong feelings about the subject matter which, without feeling the need to go dumpster-diving, which certainly resonates with me personally – and the movie's narrative asks all the right questions in all the right ways. The only flaw is that the way the story is told feels ever so slightly as though we, the audience, are as ignorant from the outset as Sarah, the undercover agent, is when going into her assignment. A minor bug-bear I suppose, and one that's easily chalked up to me being a little too sensitive.
The truth is that The East asks some extremely difficult questions, but it wouldn't be the first. In fact, a quick glance over it's shoulder reveals that Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves is likely to be a contender when it comes to difficult questions, but I wonder if Reichardt's eco-thriller will have the guts that Batmanglij and Marling's has. The East actually tries to answer some of the questions it asks, rather than raising the issue and running away scared. It takes a side rather than sits on the fence, and for that I applaud the movie. Whether the answers it offers are right or wrong I pass no judgement, that's for the audience to decide themselves, but nevertheless, it's a brave stance they take, and that's certainly worth applauding.
In terms of casting, the movie hits the right notes with a combination of Hollywood A-lister heavyweight, B-list recognizable faces, and unknowns with decent ability. It's well balanced. Ellen Page is wonderful as the prickly, hard-lined activist, Izzy. Aleksander skarsgård plays Benji, the broody and moody leader of the group, while the massively underrated Toby Kebbell puts in a captivating performance as Doc. Marling works as the square peg in a round hole particularly well as she wrestles with her role as an undercover agent becoming besotted with the group and their leader, and Patricia Clarkson pulls off the powerful woman act with frightening accuracy as Sharon, the head of Hiller Brood. All in all, it's a very competent cast that does a fine job.
In terms of the movie itself, Batmanglij has a steady hand at the helm. He deserves a great deal of credit in pulling off a movie as serious and complex as this, as well as he does. With an obvious talent for storytelling, and the confidence to push buttons he must have known would raise moral and ethical questions, it's hard to have much other than respect for him as a director. Sure, I have my gripes about certain aspects of the movie, and without a doubt I don't agree the way everything is presented, but I'm more than happy to sit back, raise an eyebrow or two and be shown a competent and compelling tale that's told with finesse and fervour. Perhaps some of this confidence comes from having the Scott brothers, Ridley and the late Tony, both backing you in exec producer roles, but credit where credit is due.
When all is said and done, The East keeps it's Indie feel and that's to it's credit. It may take a pretty soft line with eco-terrorism, and it probably won't convert you into a green fingered dumpster-diver, but it'll ask you questions that will challenge you, and it'll do it in a way that is entertaining and memorable.
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