By Joan Ellis
“Promised Land” jumps enthusiastically into the national debate about hydraulic fracturing. To their credit, writers Matt Damon and John Krazinski have tried to show both sides of the question. The result is a movie that reflects the current state of the dilemma.
The usual polarized argument between the business and environmental communities has moved to a new phase. With the propulsive power of an idea whose time has come, this controversial practice for extracting gas from shale has won the argument. That victory is based on the mostly correct claim of clean, cheap, energy and the appealing promise of ending dependence on foreign oil.
The flip side of the promise is that there is no way to assess the potential damage to people or the earth. Will the thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals pumped into the shale poison the water tables? Will the deliberate destruction of the shale deposits lead to collapses in the surface of the land? Will the fabled open spaces of America become dotted with drills, trucks, tent cities and accidental spills? Of course. But since fracking has won the battle, the question becomes this: Is it possible to hold corporations accountable for their methods of extracting natural gas from the American landscape? Based on the BP debacle in the Gulf, the current Shell Oil misadventure off Alaska, and the toxicity of the Alberta Oil Sands, the answer is a probable no.
That is the central premise of Promised Land. Matt Damon plays Steve, representative of Global, a $9 billion fracking company. He must convince landowners to allow them to drill. Sue (Frances McDormand) is the tough-minded road partner who keeps Steve in line whenever he weakens in the lovely presence of Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) or the beauty of the land their company will destroy.
The other side is offered by Dustin (John Krasinski), an aggressive environmentalist determined to stop Global in its chosen tracks. Set squarely against each other, the two men will face plot twists that are engineered to strengthen one side or another by having each man walk in the other’s shoes. Matt Damon is credible as the solid Midwesterner with a strong internal compass. John Krasinski is equally believable as the passionate hippie idealist. Each of them talks in the code of his loyalty.
The vastness of middle America is filmed beautifully by director Gus Van Sant from the air and on the roads, but that glorious landscape can no longer support the people who want to live in the ways of past generations. When corporate America offers them cold cash for the golden gas beneath their feet, the temptation is enormous; but the debate is no longer limited to environmentalists vs. corporations. It has expanded to neighbors who want to sell vs. neighbors who want to stay. Whoever wins, the people will have to leave. Wherever the drills go down, corporations will have their way with the land. Side effects? That remains to be seen.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.