On Sunday, New York Times movie critic John Anderson issued a favorable profile of “If a Tree Falls,” a partisan documentary from Marshall Curry featuring convicted arsonist Daniel McGowan of the environmental terrorist group Earth Liberation Front: “Activist or Terrorist, Rendered in Red, White and Green.”
When Daniel McGowan moved in with his sister after college, he was so passionate about recycling that he took all the labels off her canned food. The problem was, he didn’t wait for her to open the cans. 'I didn’t know if I had soup, or what kind of soup; I don’t know if there’s peas, or corn,' Lisa McGowan said in an interview. 'He said, 'I never thought of that.'
Some would call Mr. McGowan overeager. The government calls him a terrorist.
The problem is, McGowan isn’t in jail for taking labels off canned food items but for arson and conspiracy related to the destruction of two lumber companies in Oregon, domestic terrorism credited to the Earth Liberation Front.
With 'If a Tree Falls,' Mr. Curry performs another balancing act: examining the roots of radical environmentalism, the destruction wrought by the Earth Liberation Front beginning in the mid-’90s and the definition of terror as used by the federal government. In the process he presents a character who defies most of the presumptions, and stereotypes, of terrorism in the post-9/11 world.
This paragraph exculpated the eco-terrorist, who after all only burned down “two empty buildings.”
'If a Tree Falls' is not a whodunit. Mr. McGowan admits to having participated in arson committed by the front, a group the F.B.I. called America’s No. 1 domestic terror threat in 2001, though no one was harmed during its acts of property destruction. 'They wanted to give him 330 years for burning down two empty buildings,' Ms. McGowan said of her brother, who received a seven-year term but was sentenced under terrorism enhancement provisions of the law, and is thus limited to one visit a month, behind glass.
Anderson suggested it’s not McGowan’s fault, but that of a repressive U.S. society:
That footage, some of the film’s most galvanizing, includes a 1997 episode in Eugene surrounding the cutting down of old-growth trees for a parking lot. When the cutting was abruptly rescheduled to the day before the City Council was to take up the issue, a confrontation between police and environmentalists ensued. The not-quite-articulated message of 'If a Tree Falls' is that a citizenry deprived of a voice may embrace more drastic measures, even a citizenry as mild as Mr. McGowan.
In February 2010, Anderson also fell for radical environmentalism, discerning a “plausible premise” in an environmentally conscious zombie movie (yes, you read that correctly), "The Crazies."