If A Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front falls short
Director Marshall Curry began making If A Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front, after a member of that group was arrested at the office of the non-profit where Curry’s wife works. The man, Daniel McGowan, was charged with arson and domestic terrorism, and he faced life imprisonment. Curry picks up his story when McGowan is under house arrest, confined to his sister’s Manhattan apartment, padding about in sweatpants, taking phone calls from his lawyers, and answering Curry’s questions about how he became involved in the short-lived group’s homegrown acts of destruction.
A film about the Earth Liberation Front offers up a veritable forest of possibilities. From the young activists who transitioned from hugging trees to burning down ski lodges to the law enforcement officials who designated eco-terrorists as a major threat to our domestic stability, with much of the activity taking place in picturesque pockets of the Northwest, you would expect If A Tree Falls to emerge as the definitive film about this intriguing, subversive group and its Robin Hood-like exploits, in which lumber companies and rape-the-land builders suffered millions of dollars in damage but not a single person was killed or wounded. But the film squanders this material at nearly every opportunity.
Curry and his co-director, Sam Cullman, may claim to tell an even-handed story about the ELF, but their sympathies clearly lie with McGowan, who proves to be a dull and uncharismatic main character, lacking in conviction, motivation, and presence. Whenever he is on screen, and that is much of the time, the movie sits there like a bowl of half-consumed jello. McGowan’s less-than-compelling personality compounds the other problem with the picture, which is that none of the ELF participants seemed to have a passion for their mission that could withstand arrest and the threat of serious prison time. This paradox, that the ELF was composed of half-hearted criminals who did serious damage to the peaceful and political wings of the environmental movement, creating more sympathy for their victims than their mission, and then plea-bargained their way out of life sentences by ratting out their fellow activists, is never examined by the film’s directors.
Curry, an Oscar-nominee for his first doc, Street Fight, is not up to the task of digging at the roots of the misbegotten irony of eco-terrorism that proclaims to save the earth through destruction. He does not interview a single member of the established environmental movement, nor does he bother introducing us to the several other ELF members arrested around the country, although he continually flashes their mug shots on the screen. He doesn’t question or refute McGowan’s assertion that a targeted lumber company was clear-cutting trees, even after the company owner explains that they couldn’t exist without practicing sustainable forestry. When the ELF finally goes too far and burns down two buildings based on faulty information, McGowan begins to recognize that maybe they’re taking the wrong approach, but even this is delivered as an aside.
What emerges from If Tree Falls is a frustrating and lazy portrait of a group of immature would-be rebels who destroy on a lark and then crumble when caught. The ramifications of their acts, and the gauzy manifesto behind their actions, are topics still waiting to be explored by a more comprehensive, courageous filmmaker.