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Review: 'If A Tree Falls: A Story Of The Earth Liberation Front' Is A Compelling Eco-Terrorism Doc

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist June 21, 2011 at 3:26AM

Of all the "issue" documentaries that have come out in the past few years about our environment, one that hasn't been broached, in any kind of thorough way, has been eco-terrorism. Part of this undoubtedly has to do with the propagation of the image of environmentalists as peace-loving, hippy dippy folks who would rather hold up signs and play hacky sack (while on break from Hampshire College) than burn out a building or engage in Palahniuk-ian fits of mischief and violent rebellion. But an even bigger reason why the subject hasn't been tackled in any kind of in-depth way must surely be the thorny, morally complicated issue of eco-terrorism; at times their aims are understandable and their tactics not much different than those they're rallying against, but there's an intensity to their methods that leaves some feeling uncomfortable, and anything involving the word "terrorist" is a tough sell.
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Of all the "issue" documentaries that have come out in the past few years about our environment, one that hasn't been broached, in any kind of thorough way, has been eco-terrorism. Part of this undoubtedly has to do with the propagation of the image of environmentalists as peace-loving, hippy dippy folks who would rather hold up signs and play hacky sack (while on break from Hampshire College) than burn out a building or engage in Palahniuk-ian fits of mischief and violent rebellion. But an even bigger reason why the subject hasn't been tackled in any kind of in-depth way must surely be the thorny, morally complicated issue of eco-terrorism; at times their aims are understandable and their tactics not much different than those they're rallying against, but there's an intensity to their methods that leaves some feeling uncomfortable, and anything involving the word "terrorist" is a tough sell.

What Marshall Curry's uneven but ultimately rewarding "If A Tree Falls" tries to do, admirably, is attack the issue from all sides while chronicling the very personal ordeal of Daniel McGowan, by all accounts a cherubically mild-mannered citizen who was seized by the F.B.I. and charged with eco-terrorism acts committed a half-decade before. (Curry explains, in an unnecessary voice over, that McGowan worked in the same office as Curry's wife and that she saw him getting hauled off by the feds.)

From there the movie follows a more biographical path, as McGowan, under house arrest at his sister's Manhattan apartment while awaiting trial, explains how he was exposed to various environmental concerns in the 1990s, indoctrinated with cult-like zeal into the Earth Liberation Front, a militarized, highly secretive group that began in the Pacific Northwest and had cells all over the country, ultimately claiming responsibility for hundreds of incidents of arson and property damage.

It's a fascinating subject matter, for sure, and the roly-poly McGowan is the greatest audience surrogate you could have wanted for this kind of thing, as you watch his idealism curdle into something more violent and ultimately into a kind of somber regret, as he faces decades in federal prison if he is convicted. (With even harsher restrictions because his crimes were grouped as terrorist attacks.) You go along with his story, and his reasons for first being part of peaceful protests and then transitioning to more serious acts, partially because what he was rebelling against is so heinous (acres of wild forest, gone) and partially because there was both an intellectualized seriousness and an impish sense of joy that accompanied the attacks, both of which seem intoxicating in their own rights. Occasionally McGowan's causes seem silly and border on zealotry (a family member recounts a recycling frenzy that led McGowan to remove all of the labels on all of the cans in her cupboard, leaving them unidentifiable and useless), but it helps with the overall tone of the movie, which is even-keeled and never overtly incendiary.

Curry, an accomplished but inelegant filmmaker, does a good job of talking to as many people as he possibly can, including giving a fairly even-handed portrait to some of the victims of the attacks (mostly logging companies and a site that was supposedly introducing genetically modified trees into the environment but in actuality wasn't). Sometimes the, for lack of a better word, coolness of environmental terrorism, including the specifics of a number of the operations, is glazed over or rendered too dry and academically procedural (probably because, as admirable as the participants come off, the documentary is quick to remind viewers that burning down buildings is a very bad thing indeed), but the strength of McGowan as a character is undeniable and the punishment for the crimes ultimately comes across as unjust and lopsided. You'll be thinking about it for a long time after it ends, even if you're unsure of the validity of both the eco-terror actions and the stringency that the F.B.I. dealt with the crimes. The documentary, at the very least, answers the lingering question of what the Bush administration was up to instead of finding Bin Laden or regulating anything – they were coming after people who were wrapped up in activism and got in over their heads a decade before. Way to go, guys. [A-]

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