Operation Backfire: Daniel McGowan and his cronies were arrested for setting fire to this Superior Lumber mill in January 2002.

Meet Daniel McGowan, a tubby thirtysomething and laidback New Yorker (apparently they do exist) with a thing for acupuncture. He putters around his sister’s apartment in Queens, helping her save the planet by composting and removing recyclable labels from canned food in the kitchen. He’s also a member of what the FBI once called America’s “No. 1 domestic terrorist threat.”

This guy? That’s what filmmaker Marshall Curry wants you to think as he exposes the softer side of activist McGowan and the radical environmental rights group the Earth Liberation Front in his new documentary If a Tree Falls. Despite its innocuous acronym—um, ELF?—the Front has been known to sabotage organizations it identifies as harmful to the environment, including the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture, which was burned to the ground 10 years ago. Can such an act be justified? McGowan thinks so. He makes his case to the camera during his house arrest in 2006, as he awaited trial in federal court on 14 counts of arson and two counts of conspiracy to commit arson.

Despite McGowan’s musings and a series of interviews with his dejected co-conspirators, the film does little to rouse sympathy for their extremism; instead, the unlikely heroes come off as a bunch of wayward kids procrastinating through pyromania. McGowan flits between blatantly disregarding authority—grinning mug shots of his first arrest come to mind—and openly regretting his actions. His journey from disaffected teen to radical environmentalist to remorseful convict rings rather false. Even attempts to villainize corporate lumber giants by panning across lush Oregon forests with a sentimental backtrack fail to compel.

And what of Curry’s overarching question: Is this activism or terrorism? Unfortunately, he only scratches the surface of what could potentially be an excellent debate. And when McGowan whines about how “hideous” it is to be called a terrorist, it doesn’t really help his cause.

If a Tree Falls opens at Varsity Theater on July 22.

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