DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: If A Tree Falls
Scene from If A Tree Falls
If A Tree Falls suggests an allegorical and social tipping point in its title, stressing the power of the present decisive moment as a barometer for future environmental action. Not surprisingly, various ideologies define the human subjects of director Marshall Curry’s informative but meandering documentary on the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a radical American eco-terrorist group that committed countless acts of arson targeting timber companies and polluters in the late 1990’s. Impassioned motivations, both for the members of this home-grown extremist group and the FBI agents chasing them, inevitably lead to life-changing consequences. Their personal experiences become domino’s in a long line of historical chain-reactions, and Curry attempts to contextualize the devout viewpoints on both sides. His film is a timeline of many conflicting experiences, some more impacting than others.
Structurally, If A Tree Falls traverses the recent watershed moments of the extreme environmental movement with archival footage from violent protests, news coverage of the fires, and the epic governmental investigation into the subversive actions of the ELF. These early moments are seamless and rapid, conveying the building anger activists felt during the 1995 Warner Creek Timber Sale and beyond, while giving the police brutality toward peaceful protests a rightfully fascist impression. Curry juxtaposes his historical perspective with the personal memories of ELF elite, most specifically David McGowan, one of the group’s most radical members currently awaiting trial in New York City. By exploring McGowan’s progression from quiet teenager to angry activist, Curry creates a fluid relationship between past, present, and future. McGowan's influential personal actions, violent or nonviolent, end up having global implications.
The film walks a razor’s edge by trying to balance empathy for McGowan with the destructive and costly actions of the ELF. After a wonderfully choreographed opening that gives the viewer a sense of the the ELF’s isolation from various other non-violent environmental groups, Curry begins to grow more immersed in the specific feelings of regret in McGowan’s mind. Ultimately, we see the futility in his stance of “non cooperation” with the authorities, when key members of the ELF are indicted and turn into informants, falling prey to their own survival instincts. This leaves Daniel as a last man standing in an empty room once filled with screaming ideologues. His delusions to reality is disturbing, and If A Tree Falls begins to manipulate the viewer into feeling a certain way about these characters, specifically demonizing one key informer named Jake Ferguson while humanizing the people he helped indict, namely McGowan.
Stylistic flourishes help offset Curry’s more blatantly biased aesthetic choices. As McGowan retraces his involvement in the burning of a tree farm near Eugene, Oregon that was supposedly experimenting with genetically enhanced poplars, Curry uses a hypnotic process of animation called rotoscoping to reenact the events. It’s a stunning bit of style in a film otherwise devoid of it, capturing a ghostly quality about the way McGowan and his associates remember their criminal acts. This trend continues throughout the more intense memories of destruction, giving McGowan’s confessions a necessary haziness that tends to question the ideological certainty in his voice.
By the time If A Tree Falls takes on a legal thriller structure, Curry embraces even more conventional storytelling devices to complete McGowan’s simplistic character study. As if to put an exclamation point on the drama, Curry scores the final moments of the film to Danny Elfman’s “Finale”, a musical theme featured in Peter Berg’s The Kingdom. It’s a strange and ultimately misguided choice of music to compliment the moralizing crescendo. The thematic register here is obvious: crime pays, even when we’re convinced it’s a necessary evil for the greater good. Yet, the viewer is forced to see the consequences of McGowan’s actions in a very narrow framework, instead of allowing his interior conflicts a necessary ambiguity. Certainty is a documentary film’s greatest sin, and despite many gripping stylistic and informational virtues, If A Tree Falls ends up answering all the wrong questions. A life's work (and fall from grace) should not be a foregone conclusion.