If a Tree Falls

Film
3 out of 5 stars
If a Tree Falls

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Subtitled "A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," Marshall Curry's documentary makes the most of limited access; its focus is narrow, but sharp. The filmmaker's entre begins with eco-activist Daniel McGowan's 2005 arrest on federal charges, stemming from the 2001 firebombings of an Oregon lumber company. (McGowan was nabbed while he was working at the Women's Law Initiative in Brooklyn, which is run by Curry's wife---thus explaining how one gets inside a highly secretive organization as its former members face life sentences.)

Unlike ELF's Jacob Ferguson, a sullen heroin addict who became a linchpin of the government's case, McGowan comes off uniformly upbeat---not surprising for someone whose nature-child awakening occurred at a Wetlands show. (It could have been worse: He might have become a Blues Traveler fan.) There's no trace of the crusader who colleagues nicknamed the Disgruntled, let alone the frustrated treehugger who turned to violence when civil disobedience fizzled. Like the Weather Underground, the ELF focused exclusively on property damage; they were labeled terrorists regardless. Although Curry's subjects include law-enforcement officials, the film is largely sympathetic to McGowan's motives, if not his methods, while touchy subjects like the wanton destruction of "black bloc" protestors are referenced but not explored. Considering its incendiary subject, Curry's approach is disarmingly tame; perhaps reframing the debate in less volatile terms is some kind of lukewarm triumph.

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