Sarah (Brit Marling), an operative for a private security company, goes undercover with an eco-terrorist group to head off any upcoming actions targeting her corporate clients. But after spending time with the small group, Sarah grows close to its charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgard) and begins to question which side of the fight she supports.
The film has the makings of a decent thriller rooted in provocative real-life issues, but it never sinks its teeth in. Neither side — polluting corporations or destructive terrorists — is inherently sympathetic to audiences, and The East won't change your mind. And the story pulls its punches by making the political very personal, as if ideas alone were not enough.
Director Zal Batmanglij co-wrote the story with Marling, and they get points for aiming for something more thoughtful than an actioner. But it's only the lightest meditation on the morality of various actions (double-agenting, eco-terrorism, corporate malfeasance), made megaplex-friendly with a sprinkle of melodrama and a dash of nail-biting. The East also leans heavily on plot contrivance — Sarah's entry into the group is laughable, as are the groups' stunts. In all, a disappointment coming from the team that penned The Sound of My Voice, a far more interesting examination of fringe groups.