Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 09, 2013 2:40 pm 
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Environmental drama

Promised Land is a drama about fracking (or hydraulic fracturing, though that more formal term is never used in the film). I never knew I'd see that. Till recently, I didn't know what fracking was. I barely do now (it's a complicated, tricky process), though this movie gives a brief explanation addressed to elementary school students. It's a way to extract oil or natural gas from deep in the earth using long drills, pumped water, and pumped in chemicals. If these seep into the water table, you're screwed. But the company will pay you a lot of money to lease the rights to your land. This shows Matt Damon, who co-wrote, produced, and co-stars, in his aw-shucks ordinary guy mode. We know Matt looks stolid but macho, with an innocent-looking smile, but he can also play Jason Bourne, a multi-lingual international killer spy -- only he doesn't want to play that any more. He was a working class genius in Good Will Hunting. And he returns to working with Gus Van Sant in this environmental cause picture, Van Sant himself a schizophrenic director, who has touched brilliance in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, gone deeply arthouse with the trilogy Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. Some of his other movies are harder to explain. He has also produced a lot of gay-related films, besides directing Milk. This is an issue movie, something that might be better dealt with in a documentary (and there is one, GasLand), because it tries to say something serious in a way that's condescending and packed with clich├ęs. Probably the cause of Promised Land is just. This feels like material more suotied to the talents and proclivities of John Sayles. His fracking movie would have been longer, probably more boring. But it would have had more quirk and nuance, and provided more specifics about the issues involved. Not many people would have seen it. But who will see Promised Land, other than the converted?

The big company Steve Butler (Damon) represents, Global Something, sends him and a lady known as Sue (a no-nonsense Frances McDormand) out to a town full of small, failing farms, to sell them on turning over the rights to extract natural gas from their property in exchange for probable big dividends. Things are going well till there's a town meeting and old man Yates (Hal Holbrook) speaks up. He isn't just a small farmer who's Googled "fracking." He worked for Boeing and NASA and has a Ph.D. from MIT. Then it gets even worse when the tellingly named Dustin Noble appears (played by John Krasinski, a good comic actor with brash energy, who co-wrote and co-produced and co-stars). Dustin represents a mysterious environmental outfit named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who drives a new truck with a suspiciously corporate-looking Athena logo on the door, and he comes to woo the locals to the anti-fracking, non-lease-signing cause. Dustin is ace at making nice with the locals, and perhaps more importantly, is taller and thinner than Matt Damon, his character faster on his feet.

My troubles with this movie are two. First, it sketches in its folksy setting with too broad a brush. You've got the rolling hills with the livestock. You've got the kids playing in the front yards on whom Steve tries the same joke every time. You've got the high school gym where the people come for deceptions and revelations. You've got the men with the pickup trucks and the baseball caps. When folks aren't at their failing farms or congregating at the gym they're at Buddy's bar, drinking and singing live Karaoke. Dustin beats Sue at that, and spreads a lot of handbills and posters and doubt. Sooner or later some men have to come up to Steve at Buddy's and sock him in the jaw for hiding the truth. There only seems to be one pretty young woman, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), and both Steve and Dustin must vie for her favors. Wheever she invites over is the one who's winning.

Second, and worse, the screenplay (by Krasinski and Damon from a story by Dave Eggers) uses contrivances that undermine the message. Steve Butler wins over locals at first with fakery and truth. Actually not intentional fakery, because he believes in fracking; and he truly comes from a little farming town himself, originally, a town that desperately needed Caterpiller and fell apart when the company pulled out. Dustin Noble does just the same: surely the filmmakers believe his cause is just, that fracking isn't worth the harm it causes to the environment and the population. But then: (look away now if you're going to see the film and want to be surprised) it turns out Dustin has more willfully lied, about something anyway, pretending the contaminated farm in his big poster is from his home town and that it's in Nebraska, when he's not from there and the town is near the coast. Then we are asked to believe Dustin lied on purpose, because he too secretly works for Global Something, and is a plant, to disenchant the locals with environmentalism by thinking its advocates tell lies. Whaa? His own discovery that his company has done this leads Steve to change sides, tell the locals the truth about this devious ruse, and get fired. And the town, presumably, goes on rejecting fracking. These plot details are fishy and contrived and the movie is wound up hastily, which obviously sabotages the film's anti-fracking cause as much as Dustin's trickery is allegedly supposed to. Global Something has been foiled, but we and the filmmakers know its like is still winning, so far. The town's small farms are still failing, too.

A detailed article about fracking in rural Pennsylvania, where this film was mostly shot, appeared in the New York Times about a year ago; and there are others. Besides tainting the water, fracking may even dramatically increase the likeliness of earthquakes There is little doubt that there is a boom in hydraulic fracturing and that its environmental effects can be very dangerous -- though the big one is fossil fuels and impending planetary eco-disaster. Maybe Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant should have created a Harvey Milk of anti-fracking who would have led a nationwide uprising against fossil fuels and pollution.

Promised Land opened in the US (limited) 28 Dec. 2012 and (wide) 4 Jan. 2013; opens 19 Apr. 2013 in the UK.


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