When Eco-Terrorists Attack

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.