Filmmaker Zal Batmanglij loves superheroes. He grew up a big fan of comic books and characters like Batman, Superman and the X-Men. He loves superhero movies, singling out both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s takes on Batman as among his favorites. But when it came to making his new film, the political thriller The East, co-written with star Brit Marling, Batmanglij had a different kind of superhero in mind.
“I think that those comic-book stories were stories for a different era,” he says during a recent trip to the Bay Area where The East screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “Those characters, those superheroes in costumes were for wartime America, postwar America. It’s just not relevant now. I’m interested in who are the superheroes of today? What are the stories of today? How can we make sense of the world we’re living in?”
The new heroes that Batmanglij and Marling came up with are the members of the anarchist collective that gives their film its title, The East. Led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), the son of one-percenters who has spit out his silver spoon, the group’s actions – or “jams,” as they call them – are a form of retribution against corporations whose actions bring harm to the world. The East is more than just a nuisance. Their eye-for-an-eye-plus-another-eye quest for revenge is harmful to the bottom line. The corporate world responds by hiring Hiller Brood, a private security firm to deal with the threat. As part of her strategy to neutralize the group, company head Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) sends her latest recruit, former FBI agent Sarah (Marling), into the field to find and infiltrate The East.
“We wanted to start a conversation,” Batmanglij says. “We didn’t have any answers. We still don’t have any answers. We had nothing to preach, so there’s no preach in this movie. We wanted to braid a thriller, the kind of thrillers we grew up loving, 1970s thrillers like The Parallax View or All the President’s Men with issues of today and raising those questions and inspiring conversations.”
Batmanglij and Marling’s previous feature, 2011’s Sound of My Voice, was sci-fi, but they wanted to ground The East in reality. Private firms like Hiller Brood do engage in the type of intelligence work that was once the purview of government agencies. Corporations do pursue the bottom line at the expense of health and safety. The pharmaceutical company that The East targets in the film is based on an actual company that put profits before patients when releasing one of its drugs.
“It’s a real drug,” Batmanglij says. “It’s the most commonly prescribed antibiotic. It causes in some people those side effects. There’s a great NewsHour piece on it. When you see a mom take a couple of pills and end up in a wheelchair – she took it for a suspected infection or something – it’s like, ‘What?’ Who’s accountable for that?
“They’re only accountable to the shareholders, to the bottom line,” he adds. “What’s strange to me about the corporate climate is that no one’s in it for the long game. The long gain is not part of the equation. It’s all about the short term. Literally, it’s the quarter, that’s what it’s about and that causes a society obsessed with fads, obsessed with youth, obsessed with the moment rather than investing in growth, investing in change, investing in transformation.”
The East’s own actions are harsh, inviting questions over whether the collective actually inhabits any kind of moral high ground over the corporate entities they have declared the enemy. Batmanglij does not believe in eye-for-an-eye justice in the real world, but he finds a certain satisfaction in playing it out on screen.
“You want to see – the fantasy, the exorcism is you want to see the people who are making the most profit from that company that is making that drug, you want to see them be held accountable,” he says. “You can’t help but feel a certain sense of satisfaction when it’s done in fiction.
“I recently watched a grandmother being evicted from her home by force after it was foreclosed and I thought to myself, ‘How are we allowing this?’ Then you can imagine The East, Batman-style, coming in and forcing a banker and his wife out of their multimillion dollar mansion by police eviction. I would like to see that. I would like to see the look on her face as she’s holding her yapping puppy as they are being forced out of their home.” – Pam Grady