Fracking-Related Film Offers a Human Take on a Controversial Political Issue
In Review: Promised Land (Fiction)
The title Promised Land brings to mind biblical images of a fertile land flowing with milk and honey. In Gus Van Sant’s new film, the dubiously blessed land flows with a lucrative resource: natural gas.
Photos by Scott Green/courtesy Focus Features
Promised Land has an all-star team befitting an Oscar-bait film. Matt Damon plays the lead. Damon and Van Sant last collaborated on Good Will Hunting, Damon’s Oscar-winning breakout film. John Krasinski (most notably Jim from the TV series The Office) picks up Ben Affleck’s role this time as Damon’s co-writer and co-star. The screenplay, written by Damon and Krasinski, is adapted from a screen story written by Dave Eggers.
Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler, a salesman for the fictitious natural gas company “Global.” Steve and his co-pilot, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) are sent to the small town of McKinley to purchase the rights to drill on the residents’ land. Some of the struggling farmers stand to make millions from the royalties. But some locals worry the land could be wrecked by fracking. In trying to close the deal, Steve and Sue work hard to appeal to their rural customers. They hide their city background by dressing in flannel, drive a beat up car, and spew rehearsed lines about their farming backgrounds.
Their efforts are undermined when a young greenie named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up from an environmental outfit named “Athena.” Dustin launches an anti-fracking campaign during karaoke night at the local bar by telling the story of his childhood farm destroyed by the toxic chemicals from a fracking operation.
(In case you somehow missed it, fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of injecting water and chemicals deep into wells to fracture the shale and release oil and gas locked miles beneath the surface. The process has been blamed for groundwater contamination, wildlife habitat loss, and air pollution. See the Journal’s recent cover story on fracking in North Dakota).
The battle between Steve and Dustin explores this heated controversy via the story of one dying town in America’s heartland. The two sides are both depicted as outsiders who infiltrate the community, vying for support as they each spin their own version of the truth.
The filmmakers bring real depth and nuance to the characters and story. Despite the polarizing subject matter, the characters avoid slipping into the broad categories of good and evil. Corporate shills Steve and Sue are often presented as likable. Steve genuinely seems to believe he is helping people by making them rich; or at the very least he is trying to convince himself that he isn’t the “bad guy.” Sue just wants what’s best for her son: “This is just a job,” she repeats, a mantra she uses to maintain an emotional distance from the people she is trying to sell on the idea of fracking. Eco-hottie Krasinski should be the good guy. But he comes with a healthy dose of smarm (evidenced by his name: Dustin Noble) and isn’t the most sympathetic character.
The film certainly has the requisite Hollywood gimmicks of a big-budget film: snappy one-liners, dramatic speeches, a love story. Overall, however, Promised Land is understated. There are plenty of moments of lighthearted humor. The muted cinematography and country folk soundtrack paint rural Americana well. The film sidesteps obvious hillbilly clichés with many insightful and perceptive rural townspeople. Hal Holbrook plays Frank Yates, an educated science teacher, with a flair for Googling.
Rather than harping on the simplistic argument that oil is bad, the film focuses on transparency, American values, and the difficult reality of choice. It raises tough questions about the value we place on land, tradition, and money.
Although Damon and Krasinski have said the film is not overtly liberal, such a controversial topic naturally will have difficulty staying immune to lobbies on either side. Fracking has already attracted attention in Hollywood. It was the subject of Gasland, a 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary, and some celebrities have become fracking opponents. Yoko Ono and her son, Sean Lennon founded Artists against Fracking, which has celebrity members as diverse as Lady Gaga and Martha Stewart. (None of Promised Land’s leading folks are members).
Even prior to release, Promised Land has been criticized by pro-fracking advocates, due to funding from ImageNation, a company based in Abu Dhabi. (Abu Dhabi appears prominently in the opening credits). The implication being that the oil-rich nation wants to suppress domestic oil and gas production in the US to keep its exports up. The US energy industry and fracking lobbyists are already preparing to mitigate bad press.
Promised Land certainly has an anti-fracking slant, but it is far more than a heavy-handed piece of advocacy. The film is a thoughtful, well-wrought story that explores timely American themes. Perhaps most importantly it gives fracking, a critical environmental issue, a broad public forum.
Promised Land will be showing in select theatres starting today but will reach most theaters January 4.