The movie The East, which was released on May 31 and is now playing nationally, is the story of a young woman, Jane (Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film), who has gone from working at the FBI to starting a career at a shadowy, chilly, and fancy private intelligence firm. Her boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), assigns Jane to embed herself within a collective called the East that's been successfully harassing (and worse) some megacorporations. Once Jane — or as she's known in her undercover guise, Sarah — gets herself in with the East, she finds them to be trust-fund terrorists — the sorts played by Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page.
To her shock, Jane/Sarah also finds them to be kindred spirits whose causes she comes to believe in. And here's where I'm going to vaguely spoil the movie's ending.
The film's arc is quite a bit like Edward Snowden's: a young professional with a promising future begins in government and moves into the private sector, only to discover secrets he can't keep. Jane/Sarah does not embrace the East's methods, but the movie does end with her picking another path toward their goals. The fictional firm in The East, Hiller Brood, is even an awful lot like Snowden's former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton — down to the double "o"s and "l"s. (I asked Booz Allen if they were aware of the film and would like to comment: a representative declined.)
Zal Batmanglij directed The East. It is his second feature collaboration with Marling (the first being Sound of My Voice). We talked on the telephone this week about the movie's parallels to the real-life story of Snowden and the world of private intelligence.
In most of the interviews I read with you and Brit Marling before the movie came out, I noticed that reporters were more focused on asking about the East, the radical group in the movie. Now I imagine that people might want to know about the consulting company that Sarah works for. Tell me about your research into that world.
Zal Batmanglij: I grew up in Washington, D.C., so intelligence work has always fascinated me. I went to a school where a lot of spies sent their kids.
ZB: It's called the Potomac School, and it's actually across from the CIA. So I grew up with that as part of the culture. Brit and I went to Georgetown where a lot of people get groomed for intelligence work. It's something that always fascinated us. I think that in another life, we would have done that work.
But what took our breath away back when we started writing this project is how much the intelligence work is now outsourced to private companies. And that's something that we put into our script. On the script level, no one had any issues with it. But the first time we ever screened the film, people were very confused as to what Hiller Brood was. Did Sarah work for the FBI or not? What was going on? I think now, post-Snowden, that confusion is sort of lifted. People are starting to understand these private intelligence groups. Though I think — still — people don't fully understand the idea that the private group has full, top-secret clearance and that their services are being retained by intelligence services and the government.
Was that news to you, too? Or did you know it already?
ZB: We stumbled upon it on our research. We were interested in telling a spy story, and then we were, like, "Oh, it's so funny that no one's ever made a movie about private intelligence, because that seems like where all the good spies go." Just like with everything else, the private sector is able to pay for the best people.
Did you look specifically at Booz Allen?
ZB: I don't want to say that. We looked at companies like Booz Allen. These companies' services aren't very clear: a lot of them are consulting companies.
So how did you imagine what a company like this one is like?
ZB: We came at it from a human place. We always imagined Hiller Brood as just as enticing as the East. For a host of opposite reasons. So we imagined, "What's a really nice company to work for?" It seems to be doing important things; it's filled with interesting people.
This is a very shadowy world to most people, and to almost everyone in the movie, too. How disturbed should we be about these companies?
ZB: This conversation you and I are having is being recorded. But the funny thing is, I assumed that last year. So I have to be honest that the Snowden thing wasn't some shock to me.
It also gets a lot more confusing. All of it gets very morally gray. Facebook and Google are now starting to share all the requests that the government has asked them for. It's like 9000 requests in a certain period. But then you realize that a lot of these requests are because a child's been kidnapped. And they want to be able to comb through people's Facebooks to see what were the last steps of this child. If I were writing a new movie, my god, you better believe I think that Facebook should be used to save a child that's just been kidnapped. It starts getting really murky.
When the Guardian's NSA story broke, was your mind blown?
ZB: We couldn't believe it. I think three people sent me the Snowden interview at the same time.
But before the Snowden interview was published, in the original Guardian story, did you assume the leak had come from the government?
ZB: Yeah, the original NSA story didn't really trigger it for me. I sort of expected that everything was being monitored, so I wasn't exactly surprised. What surprised me was when a 29-year-old kid from my generation, which is what I feel The East is about — The East is about generational warfare as much as it's about anything. This 29-year-old guy who seemed pretty level-headed and thoughtful saw things that he just couldn't understand how they existed and wanted to expose it. The fact that he worked at a private intelligence firm. It all just seemed eerily paralleled.
The Booz Allen part of it — what did you think about that based on your research?
ZB: There's a line in the movie when Sharon, who's a high up official at Hiller Brood, a private intelligence firm, says, "We're in 32 countries protecting your good name, that's why it's very important nobody's ever heard of ours." That's a line that echoed in my mind. Companies like Booz Allen — people have never heard of them before, and yet they're so powerful.
The Sarah character takes a different path than the East — going toward the same goal in a less destructive way than they would. In terms of what Edward Snowden was doing, how do you compare him to her character?
ZB: I imagine that Edward Snowden and Sarah are very alike. They're both nomads, sort of exiled from proper society because they can't stand the horrors anymore. Some people have criticized our film for having an ending they think is too Pollyanna. But really, it's Edward Snowden's fate. It's not a Pollyanna ending: it's a person on the run. A person who's living so much for what they believe that they're giving up everything that they love, everything that they know and are familiar with.
Were you taking a guess that there are disaffected workers at these places that end up turning on them, or was that something you know?
ZB: I think the word "disaffected" is already falling for the propaganda. I don't think he was "disaffected," right? I think he was horrified at what he was seeing. "Disaffected" suggests that he was personally unhappy. I don't think Snowden was personally unhappy. I just think he couldn't believe — he couldn't believe it.