By Mark Asch
Daniel McGowan—raised in Rockaway, the son of an Irish-American cop and once upon a time a cross-country runner at Christ the King—is under house arrest when If a Tree Falls begins, awaiting trial on "eco-terrorism"char ges relating to his participation in arsons as a member of the Earth Liberation Front around the turn of the century, and pointedly wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of George W. Bush and the caption "International Terrorist"as he's filmed. (In voiceover, director Marshall Curry explains that he came to begin interested in the man and his movement when McGowan was arrested at the office of the New York nonprofit,, where he worked with the director's wife—the sort of suggestive but hardly germane production backstory better left to press kits.)


McGowan's recollections of his environmental awakening mirrors the film's thumbnail history of eco-activism in the Pacific Northwest, with copious assists, de rigueur in contemporary political docs, from the movement's own copious self-documentation: civil disobedience along Pacific Northwest logging routes; riot cops using firehoses on marchers and pepper-spraying literal tree-huggers right in the eyes; WTO window-smashing (scored to Rage Against the Machine). The radicalization of political opposition, including in the nascent Earth Liberation Front, is portrayed here as an emotional, rather than pragmatic, response to the militarization of crowd-control strategies, and a sense of futility in the face of global market hegemony; further escalation comes after 9/11, when the expanding national-security state begins to define as "terrorists”—meaning more aggressive federal resources at the disposal of inevitably selective investigations, and stiffer penalties for offenders—all crime with a political agenda. (You can see a lot of this, as well, in Better This World, another new doc.)

As the ELF begins to test out recipes from the anarchist cookbook, If a Tree Falls begins a discussion about the justification of political violence and "economic sabotage,"but the terms of debate remain frustratingly vague, free of any rational, specific consideration of cause-and-effect and moral calculus. What's even more frustrating is that we can't tell why—whether the ELF, shown to be decentralized, fractious, and bad at intelligence-gathering, had an ultimately fuzzy program, or whether Curry has simply failed to draw his subjects out. It's surely at least partly the latter, given his tentative engagement and commercial shortcuts: ELF actions are recalled with line animation, tense play-by-play narration and insistent tick-tock drums; in the contemporary scenes (songs by The National), McGowan and his family lament his impending jail time while other former ELF members shake their heads ruefully. The film describes the tragic arc of these fatally flawed idealists, without really investigating the content of their ideals.

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