If a Tree Falls wants audiences to rally behind Daniel McGowan, a soft-spoken fellow facing life in prison for crimes committed with the Earth Liberation Front.
What director Marshall Curry can’t do is make McGowan worth our sympathy. The eco-terrorist is immature, arrogant, and unable to take full responsibility for his actions.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is gripping all the same, a fascinating peek into what passes for the soul of the eco-terrorist movement.
McGowan is as extreme an environmentalist as one could imagine even if he doesn‘t rant and rave like a panelist on MSNBC. We see him soaping up a plastic bag in order to re-use it and hear about the time he took off all the labels on his sister’s food cans so he could recycle the paper. The fact that she then couldn’t tell what was in each can didn’t cross his mind.
He’s a portrait of arrested development, a man who grooved on the vibe of the environmental movement as well as its street cred. We don’t snitch on each other, man, so don’t ask us, he says.
Except plenty of his old pals did just that.
McGowan’s radicalism began when he met a woman collecting signatures for an environmental cause. From there he watched a video of trees being cut and smoke belching out into the beautiful blue sky.
He was hooked.
McGowan’s story likely echoed some of his fellow ELF members. But there’s no attempt to dig deeper into their psychology. Most environmentalists wouldn’t burn down a logging plant or put the lives of strangers at risk.
The reasons for the ELF’s violent nature will seem inflated to any clear-thinking viewer. The environmental protestors bemoaned the slow pace of progress for their cause. And, when they hurled stones at police during some protest, the police hit back.
Change takes time. It also involves affecting the hearts and minds of enough people to rally to your side. But the ELF members were unable to do that in large enough numbers.
Curry clearly has a soft spot for these eco-hooligans. If a Tree Falls stacks the talking head deck squarely on their side. Only late in the film do we hear from law enforcement officials who helped round up McGowan and his co-horts with the kind of crime solving panache that would make a Law & Order highlight reel.
The film employs a number of devices to humanize McGowan. We get a close-up of the bracelet which prevents him from leaving his home following his arrest, see grainy film of him as a young boy, and meet his girlfriend, a woman willing to stand by her man no matter what.
McGowan, often seen wearing a T-shirt calling President George W. Bush an international terrorist, doesn’t like it when he gets labeled a “terrorist.”
“No one got hurt, no one got injured,” he whines. And while that’s true, could his buddies ensure that before the fact? Fires spread. Firefighters die in the line of duty. People show up in places where they’re not supposed to be all the time.
Any one of their actions could have led to innocents being killed. And what about the people whose livelihoods rested on the buildings he burned? One ELF arson target was destroyed over erroneous information.
ELF lied, buildings died.
A fascinating moment arrives mid film during one of the few interviews of the victims of the ELF crimes. A logger patiently describes how his industry replaces the trees cut with new ones. Otherwise, the industry wouldn’t be self-sustaining.
“We re-grow these trees….It’s the law,” the man says, a moment of sanity in a film teeming with cloaked figures boasting poorly assembled ideas.
But it’s not really all about the environment. The ELF is anti-capitalist to its core.
Curry soberly recalls the ELF’s rise, both in its early protests and the events which helped radicalize it, like when the Forest Service tore down a protest wall ELF members had erected. The group responded by burning a pair of ranger stations to the ground. One of the stations incurred $5.3 million in damages. There’s certainly an argument to be made against lumping McGowan and his co-horts in with the likes of al-Qaeda. McGowan faced a lifetime in prison based on post-9/11 rules. Tree dutifully makes the case that McGowan doesn’t deserve to share a cell with shoe bombers.
And anyone who ever spent hours protesting with nothing to show for it beyond blistered feet will understand the frustration at how slow actual change can happen. But it’s hard to square those concerns with the ELF’s actions.
A lack of diverse voices hurts Tree’s otherwise gripping narrative. Where are the more moderate environmentalists? Does ELF have some solid arguments? Was Curry afraid to find out the answers?
Instead, we hear more from McGowan, who at one point fondly recalls one of his first violent acts, smashing stores that dared to be a part of the capitalist system.
“It felt good to take out my rage on these corporate windows,” he says.
If a Tree Falls amounts to a feature-length rationale for burning down places that don’t agree with your worldview. It’s far more valuable for illuminating the folks who take such actions.