When Eco-Terrorists Attack

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?