None of us watch the news reports of environmental disasters sad-eyed pelicans suffocating in crude oil, small-town creeks choked with industrial sludge and think, ''Well done, corporate America!'' But what separates the handwringers and bake-sale fund-raisers from the people who dedicate their lives to fighting back? And who decides whether these eco-warriors are activists, zealots, or just criminals?
Sarah (played with milky, controlled coolness by Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script) is a field agent for a private D.C. intelligence firm that specializes in hunting down the criminal kind. She's a driven type A and devout Christian who also has no qualms about lying to her live-in boyfriend (Jason Ritter) about the nature of her undercover assignments. The scenes of her gutter-punk transformation and subsequent embedding with anarchist collective the East are achieved with impressive, if logic-straining, economy. And what gorgeous anarchists they are: Led by the taciturn, Jesus-bearded Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), they swim naked in lakes and play spin the bottle by candlelight until it's time to execute a ''jam,'' i.e., a targeted eye-for-an-eye attack on corporate malfeasance. The idealists-vs.-fat-cats theme gets ham-fisted, and the laughably artless postscript that runs over the end credits nearly derails the movie entirely. But The East is still a compelling portrait of what gets lost (and found) when a cause becomes an obsession. B+