The Earth Liberation Front was burning things down. I can understand their anger. It is astounding what damage has been done to the natural world, as we see in brief clips. They call logging companies “rapers,” and when they show aerial footage of clear cut areas, the term seems fitting: the land has been used, its resources taken without asking and, not only taken, but the land left is scarred by logging roads and tire tracks, stumps ground to a pulp.
The movie both is and isn’t about ELF. It focuses on Daniel McGowan, a young man on trial for arson committed against logging companies, tree farms, and universities doing genetic testing on plants. The group he was a part of, known as the Earth Liberation Front, is a radical environmental group that, once angered, moves from nonviolent protest to what is called “eco-terrorism.” Daniel not only faces arson charges but the threat of being labeled as a terrorist for the rest of his days.
Daniel himself is kind of boring. The film’s attempts to make house-arrest glamorous, or even slightly interesting to watch, just feels forced and drawn out. I understand the need to give the movement a face, but I wonder if they chose the right face: the documentary makers got their hands on Jake Ferguson, who seemed to be the most enigmatic of the group. He was involved in and had knowledge of many unsolved crimes, and the FBI eventually got enough information to arrest him. He was flipped by the FBI and acted as an informant on other members. Yet this is featured in only a few minutes of the movie. I would have much rather seen more about him than about Daniel sitting on his computer at home and hearing about his average childhood.
The forays into ELF’s past and the history of the radical environmentalist movement outside ELF show fascinating footage of environmental disasters and hazards and movements against them. This is where the story is: demonstrations in Oregon against logging on protected land, followed by footage of police retaliation that is horrifying to witness, even by film. All of this escalates to an anger and helplessness that led ELF to respond with homemade bombs. But they never hurt anybody, they attest. How can it be terrorism if no one is killed? This is one of the core questions the film addresses: what should we consider terrorism? When you put 9/11 and lighting a ranger station on fire side by side to compare them, can you really call them the same thing?
After their last acts of arson were revealed to have unpleasant consequences, ELF members split over differences of philosophy and purpose. Daniel moved to New York and settled down into a normal life. For the next three years, while Daniel worked and dated and lived, law enforcement was bearing down on Ferguson. The events that followed were akin to a plot-line from Damages, with secret informants, hidden recording devices, and staged “accidental” run-ins, leading to the eventual simultaneous arrest of five former ELF activists, including Daniel McGowan.
That brings us up to more boring segments of “artsy” shots of brick walls and crows outside of a court room. Though Daniel is interesting by association and the fact that he got caught, I don’t buy him as a representative of the movement. A self-proclaimed “city-kid,” he claims a deep love for trees that never really feels right. I mean, sure it’s sad to imagine what it’s like to be facing a prison sentence and a terrorism label, but I was un-enthralled by much of the story that surrounded him and wanted more insight into other characters at play.