After I saw Matt Damon and John Krasinski’s new fracking drama Promised Land, I couldn’t help but compare it to the slew of trite pieces trotted out during the previews.
There was the typical wedding family hijinks RomCom; the take-no-prisoners gangster-fest; the scorched-earth-meets-futuristic-savior piece; and some picture about a lovable psychotic redeemed by a chick.
Guilty pleasures, all (for somebody). And all committed to film using no small amount of fossil fuel resources.*
We’re clearly a people hooked on entertainment and fed fat by an industry that obligingly caters to our delusions, fantasies, and escapism.
So it’s fairly rare when a decent movie comes along that pierces to the heart of our troubled times while still managing to fit into the entertaining format we’ve come to expect.
But Promised Land does just that.
The original script, written by Damon and Krasinski** isn’t perfect, but it’s darn good. What I’d compare it to is a morality play — not in the strict historical and structural sense, but certainly broadly speaking.
In the film (which has touches of the revisionist Western format), corporate outsiders Damon (who turns in a sterling performance as Steve Butler) and Frances McDormand (wonderful as Sue Thomason), ride into the rural Pennsylvania town of McKinley set on turning a hefty profit for their corporate masters on the duped backs of the local yokels.
Hawking the merits of developing the area’s natural gas resources and the “guaranteed safety” of fracking to get it out, Butler and Thomason tag team with their personal pitches — he to the men with “Only gas can save this dying town” and she to the wives with “Don’t you want a better life for your kids?” — in order to get leases signed quickly.
The banality of evil
An ongoing refrain in the film is gas exec Butler’s insistence that he’s “not a bad person” and Thomason’s rationale that “it’s just a job.”
In truth, both characters are written as thoroughly likeable people. They appear to authentically believe the pitches they’re throwing. Butler grew up in a farming town that lost everything once a global corporation — Caterpillar — closed the local plant. He earnestly doesn’t want to see others face that fate as farming options and profits decline across the nation.
Thomason has a son back home who shows promise with baseball if just there are enough opportunities for him, something that her earning a decent commission on the road getting gas leases signed brings within reach.
Set in the American heartland genre, with its hard-scrabble history, unpretentious folks, and do-I-dare-to-dream-of-more longings, the movie hits every blue jeans note as if, in one engaging scene from the film, it’s the Springsteen song sung together by locals at their regular open mic night.
We want everyone in this movie to win; we want to think everyone of them is good, that every one of them can be redeemed by pluck and luck, particularly if we don’t question too much.
It’s what we want to believe outside the theater, too; that we can have our frack and eat it too — just don’t mind the land fill, your kid’s asthma prescription, and the low gray sky looming on the horizon.
Locked and loaded
It’s interesting to me that if you surf online for tidbits on this film what you find is an oddly abundant set of Web trolls throwing down anti-Promised Land propaganda at every turn. It’s a coordinated and preemptive attack not seen since the last time natural gas money tried to buy the Oscars.
From the IMDB message boards to every comment section under a film review to the predictable conservative media wagon circling to the tortured analysis offered by The Hill (which looks as beholden to industry as anyone in inbred Washington these days) it’s tough to find a place where Web swarms don’t descend on the movie in order to plant doubt, deem it a money loser, cast it as political rather than as the human story it clearly is, or render the film invalid because of the “interested” position of the UA Emirates (whose state film organization is one of the film’s producers) in trying to keep good ole ‘merican industry down.
Rifle sites have been set on this movie since before it even came out, as if attacking it in advance could succeed in derailing it and the fracking conversation in general. Much of the sullying is the obvious work of low level corporate lackeys who are likely paid five cents a post to disparage the film in online trenches.
But the bottom line is that fracking is a critically important concern for myriad reasons, making this film both timely and important.
Friday night lights
Yet the story itself seems to be just about Steve and Sue, American folks and American dreams.
Many of the most critical issues with fracking and using natural gas weren’t even touched upon in Promised Land. In truth it’s undeniably less political than it is personal, which is what I think is actually getting under the gas industry’s craw.
Damon and Krasinski were brilliant in this regard. In the end, Promised Land comes off as very non-threatening, putting fracking out there at a much wider scale without politicizing it.
And that could be its weakness from the other side.
Unaddressed in the story is market euphoria — the deceptive bubble of the promised gas yield (the old “100 years of natural gas” yarn) and how duped investors stand to take a big hit to their pocketbooks down the line; or the steep decline curves and dry holes reported by Chesapeake and other top frackers; or the broader eco-assault on the Commons we’ll all suffer with fracking’s proprietary chemical injection; or how fracking rapidly releases methane, worsening global warming woes in the acute phase while gas is still touted as a “clean energy;” then there’s the cost to local infrastructure while gas companies are there and the blighted landscape left behind when they move on, destroying tourism and other aspects of local economy in the aftermath.
But by disguising the film’s central conflict as a story about people — even about good people doing bad things — we at least get to explore the complexities of our times in familiar terms. Good versus evil in a cage match.
The fact is people do need to work, pay bills, raise kids, make choices, hope for more. Most of the time we don’t probe the ramifications of our decisions in a larger context. But with fracking as the orbit around which the characters in this film meet and ultimately conflict, we get to face the ageless question of what happens when we’re tempted by the devil’s whispered promises of getting something for nothing.
It’s a very good movie in this regard, and well worth seeing, because that’s exactly the question our lives today demand. Our choices do have consequences.
My only gripe is that I don’t like being put in the position of having to vote between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in my own private Oscar-off. It was a good year for both of them.
I was gunning for you Ben, I really was. But then Matt went and spoke to the issues closest to my heart and most critical to the kind of America we need today.
Two wells up, all the way.
–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice Magazine
**Based on a story by Dave Eggers.