c.2014 New York Times News Service

c.2014 New York Times News Service

Explosions and mayhem are a staple of summer blockbusters, whether brought about by hundred-foot robots or averted by superheroes. But what if the people blowing things up have a political agenda — like the radical environmentalists of Kelly Reichardt’s new drama, “Night Moves”? And what if they’re homegrown, not the stereotypical accented villains? Then it gets trickier: Everyone from moviegoers to producers to politicians can become sensitive when the characters are plausible, their politics real and their tactics deadly.

“Night Moves,” which opens Friday, arrives at a time when the threat of terrorism and the politics of fear are no longer top of mind. But its story — about a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who teams up with a veteran (Peter Sarsgaard) and a recently radicalized colleague (Dakota Fanning) to destroy a dam — joins a potent short list of films about American terrorists.

These are fleshed-out people with extreme beliefs, and the potential for ambiguity in the characterization and the drama sets them apart. “Night Moves” — which looks at the insidious psychological consequences of their attack — is grounded in the detail of its Pacific Northwest milieu. And as Eisenberg’s character deals with the aftermath of the group’s violent acts, the film, written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, unfolds beyond the typical debate of condemning or condoning.

“It’s interesting how many people won’t touch anything that isn’t politically absolute,” Reichardt said in an interview during the Tribeca Film Festival last month, when the film was shown. “I think if we were blowing up 100 dams, it would be no problem. But the idea that you’re doing something specific —and there’s not a clear side to be on — it’s a world that, whatever side you’re on, likes its clear paths.”

Eight years ago, another kind of challenge was posed by Julia Loktev’s “Day Night Day Night.” That precisely shot chronicle closely follows a diffident young woman who is recruited to bomb Times Square on a suicide mission. Customary exposition is withheld, suspending us in horrible anticipation as she is prepared by handlers and sent out.

“Initially, I worried I might catch hell for making her too sympathetic,” Loktev recalled in an email. “In fact, I caught some hell for the exact opposite: that I didn’t show her back story to explain why — some traumatic event in her life that would make us feel, ‘Ah now we really understand everything.’ To me that risked justifying her actions.”

“Day Night Day Night” went on to critical acclaim, and acquired an additional distinction years after its theatrical release, when the 2010 Times Square bombing plot led the Sundance Channel to limit scheduled broadcasts of the film.

That enduring unease surrounding portrayals of American terrorism, of course, can be exactly what draws a filmmaker to the subject. One of the most striking entries to these kind of films came with the documentary “If a Tree Falls.” Marshall Curry, a director of that 2011 film, embraced the complexities in the case of the Earth Liberation Front activist Daniel McGowan, who had been convicted of arson and conspiracy.

“Some questions are hard, and I think there’s a value in nudging people out of their comfort zones,” Curry said by email. “One of the things that attracted me to the Earth Liberation Front story was that it was so recent. It wasn’t a history lesson, and a consensus hadn’t settled on the questions it raised.”

Curry is not the only example of a filmmaker entering deep waters to cover a living subject, but the same can happen with a fiction film. Paul Schrader’s 1988 film “Patty Hearst” was adapted from a book by that kidnapped heiress infamously turned “urban guerrilla.”

Schrader, who also wrote “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), saw the story’s artistic potential.

“She’s in a closet, and reality is what she imagines it to be,” he said of Hearst’s initial confinement by the Symbionese Liberation Army. “I could do the whole first half of the movie inside of her head. And that’s why I did it. It’s kind of exciting.”

“Patty Hearst” offers a vivid point of view with canted camera angles, stark silhouettes and ample voice-over. Even beyond the political material, that kind of blinkered viewpoint can be unsettling for audiences — the critic Vincent Canby wrote approvingly in The New York Times that the film makes “scary demands on the audience” — but that it could have been even more provocative.

“Because it was her story, and her book, obviously it was her point of view,” Schrader said. “I would have just as willingly done it from Cinque’s point of view,” he added, referring to the Symbionese Liberation Army leader. “But there was no way of financing it.” (He credited a “lefty” producer, Marvin Worth, with making “Patty Hearst” happen.)

With such volatile material, you might expect a certain amount of interference from those footing the bill. Loktev kept her budget low partly to maintain total creative control (in addition to sometimes telling the curious that “it’s about a teenage girl coming to New York for the first time”). At the other end of the spectrum was “The East” last year, a Fox Searchlight film about a secret band of vengeful eco-terrorists.

That film’s director, Zal Batmanglij, reports surprisingly smooth sailing on the movie, in which members of the group poison a pharmaceutical company party in retaliation for the production of unsafe drugs. “It’s funny, when things work, they work,” he said, recalling how the production crystallized, especially after shooting a crucial scene depicting a communal meal among the conspirators. “The criticism falls away, and the studio gets excited.”

Soon after “The East” was released, the Edward Snowden story broke, opening yet another chapter in the country’s history of radical activism. With “Night Moves,” Reichardt adds to that history with what the film’s writer, Raymond, has called “a moral thought experiment.”

Explosions aside, that invitation to reflection might be the film’s most provocative act of all.