The Earth Liberation Front is considered a terrorist group by the FBI. They have been linked to numerous destructive activities over the years. They are a radical environmental group that takes no prisoners when it comes to defending their cause – protecting the earth. Their acronym is ELF. Yep, ELF. What could possibly be better than a documentary that covers the case of Daniel McGowan, an ELF member, who was arrested for setting fire to two timber companies? Quite a bit.
The biggest problem with If a Tree Falls is that it’s main character is a bore. This is not Philippe Petit, Mr. Brainwash, Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, etc. This is a guy who is about as intriguing as watching a tree grow. The filmmakers, Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, seem to sense this and do their best to move our attention to the more exciting parts of ELF – the odd characters, their mission, their interactions with law enforcement. The footage of ELF members going through extreme conditions and treatment is pretty amazing. Watching someone laying on the floor in peaceful protest only to be held down while their eyes are sprayed with mace is brutal. Watching McGowan mope around in his sister’s apartment and talk about his plight is even more brutal but in the worst way – brutally boring.
Since the filmmakers committed to telling McGowan’s story first and weaving the tales of ELF in between, it’s a tough doc to enjoy. Every time things pick up with exciting tales of planning an attack on a timber company’s headquarters or detailing the history of various peaceful protests turned violent, we’re dragged back into McGowan’s legal matter. And it doesn’t help that McGowan is under house arrest for the bulk of the movie so almost every scene he’s in we’re getting the same stale setting.
While watching If a Tree Falls I couldn’t help but run through various “what if” scenarios in my head. What if the movie was told more like Man on Wire? What if the narrative played out like David vs. Goliath, with ELF as David and the corporations and US government playing the part of Goliath? What if you found just about any other member of ELF and focused on him? What if you could get Will Ferrel to put his elf suit back on and have him perform reenactments of famous ELF acts of destruction?
At last, we’re left with a promising premise for a documentary with no shortage of exciting characters and stories to tell, only to be given one of the least interesting subjects one would think to find in such a fascinating group as the Earth Liberation Front.