Socialist Worker

The East: film turns nightmare of spy infiltration into a fantasy

The East shows undercover agents spying on environmental activists but fails to develop anyone’s motives much beyond caricature, says Camilla Royle

Issue No. 2360

The East stars Brit Marling (right) who also co-wrote the film

The East stars Brit Marling (right) who also co-wrote the film

The East follows Sarah Moss, an undercover agent for a sophisticated private spying firm. 

Sarah loves horses, listens to Christian rock and has an understanding, if confused, boyfriend. 

Her mission is to infiltrate The East, a secretive group of “eco-terrorists” squatting in a mansion and led by an authoritarian man called Benji. 

Their method is to give major corporations a taste of their own medicine. Of course, they argue, none of their actions have negative consequences.

If pharmaceutical companies’ products were really as safe as they claim then it shouldn’t matter if their directors’ champagne is spiked with it. 


Sarah hides her feelings behind layers of deception. The film’s concern with whether she is starting to sympathise with her targets conceals much less obvious plot twists.

Brit Marling, who plays Sarah, is herself interested in what she describes as modern anarchism. She co-wrote the film with director Zal Batmanglij. 

Both have experimented with anti-consumerist lifestyles, particularly with freeganism, living without paying for food—which they advocate in the film. 

The name “The East” comes from the association of things from the east with otherness and threat. 

Corporations really do hire private firms to gather intelligence. 

In 2011 the Guardian reported the activities of Vericola, which worked for various energy companies including Eon. 

They “managed risks” posed by environmental activists in Climate Camp and Rising Tide. 

Private spies are often hated by the state’s own operatives. Cops complain that private surveillance companies are unregulated. 

This presents the intriguing possibility that environmental campaigns could be populated by police and private operatives inadvertently spying on each other. 

The East is enjoyable but slightly let down by its one-dimensional characters who, without exception, have back stories that explain their activism. 

Overall the plot is largely implausible. It’s a fantasy, but as recent revelations around police surveillance show, its subject matter isn’t. 

The East, directed by Zal Batmanglij, is in cinemas now

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Tue 2 Jul 2013, 17:43 BST
Issue No. 2360
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