Terrorist or Activist? Daniel McGowan and the ELF in If a Tree Falls


A true-life outlaw tale as stirring as it is tragic, the story of the Earth Liberation Front offers a DeLillo-flavored draught of high-proof righteous excitement. You can hear the pitch—young, fiery 21st-century hipsters living double lives, burning down corporate buildings to protest environmental exploitation, leading to their own doom—and I should write this book right now. Marshall Curry’s new doc limning the monkeywrenchers’ career takes us through reams of fascinating drama, from the first heroic forest-saving protests to the reactive police violence and resulting dead-of-night firebombs to the core group’s implosion after the FBI tightens the net. The focus is on Brooklyn-born hyper-ecologist Daniel McGowan, who spends most of the film on house arrest, waiting for a potential life sentence, and that’s too bad—with a head-spinning tangle of ethical questions and political razor wire to deal with (without a single injury, are the ELF proper terrorists? Must violent protest be effective to be right? Does property damage discourage capitalistic greed or just cost consumers?), Curry settles for McGowan’s dread of prison and how boo-hoo-sad everyone he knows is. Curry’s previous film, Street Fight, similarly avoided political blood and bone; another, more Battle of Algiers–ish movie waits to be made.