Promised Land
Produced by Focus Features and Image Nation
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski from a story by David Eggers
Distributed by Focus Features


I thoroughly enjoyed Matt Damon’s latest movie, Promised Land.  It channels Frank Capra’s spirit, featuring little people caught in the toils of corporate skullduggery.  What’s more, it’s a work energized by Damon’s personal interest.  He’s not only performed the leading part but also written the screenplay along with his co-star John Krasinski.  The result is an unpretentious, low-budget work fitted out with a message about the dangers of fracking or, to be less slangy, hydraulic fracturing, a controversial high-tech method of accessing natural gas embedded in shale formations far below the earth’s surface.  To show his bona fides, Damon cast himself as a dim, stodgy corporate tool while generously giving the younger Krasinski the role of a cool, quicksilver environmentalist.  This is altogether admirable considering Damon’s star power.  Yet after I got home from the theater, I decided to find out more about fracking.  Doing so, I ran into some disillusioning facts.  It turns out fracking’s not the calamity the film claims.  Seems Mr. Damon didn’t do his homework.

Promised Land seeks to expose the dark doings of Hollywood’s villain of choice: a deep-pocketed corporation, like those we’ve come to know in films such as Double Indemnity (insurance), It’s a Wonderful Life (banks), The China Syndrome (nuclear energy), Silkwood (nuclear energy, again), Syriana (Big Oil), The Insider (Big Tobacco), Michael Clayton (agrochemicals)—and  on and on.  It’s a wonder America has survived as long as she has.  The big bad corporation in Promised Land is marvelously named Global Crosspower Solutions, a moniker that has the ring of full-bore market testing behind it, projecting as it does an off-the-charts reliability quotient.

As many real-world outfits, Global has turned its attention to the Marcellus Shale in southwest Pennsylvania, in which natural gas is trapped in quantities that, according to some estimates, could provide enough energy to keep America humming for another 110 years.  The company has sent sales reps Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) to persuade the locals to enter into contracts that will allow Global to drill on their land for gas.  First on their list is McKinley, Pennsylvania, an economically depressed farming community.  As soon as they pull into town, they head for a store advertising itself with alliterative swagger as the place to buy “Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas.”  There they buy rural garb to make themselves look like what they’re clearly not: authentic.  Sue has already purchased a used standard-transmission SUV of doubtful reliability, which Steve cannot drive.  Each time he gets behind the wheel, he can’t prevent the vehicle from bucking itself to a dead stall.  And this is the man who is supposed to have a grasp of fracking’s technological intricacies.  Still, these well-educated sales execs from headquarters assume their preparations will fool the local yokels.  But the farmers prove not to be gullible rubes at all.  They’re as adept at deciphering their visitor’s intentions as Steve is inept at driving a stick.  Just so we don’t miss the point, there’s a scene in which one of the locals reaches underneath the collar of Steve’s newly bought, honest workman’s jacket and, with no more than a trace of kindly condescension, rips off its price tag.

Hapless as they are at imposture, Global’s emissaries find that their initial sales calls go well.  Sue is particularly effective.  She knows how to read people to tap into their hopes.  We see her talking to a farmer’s wife, explaining that fracking may be her only chance to afford a decent college education for her youngsters.  With degrees, they’ll be able to shake McKinley’s dust from their feet.  The sweet-faced young mother accepts Sue’s pitch so docilely that she unwittingly proves she herself has not been wised up by the college experience, as it’s come to be known.  College has long become the lever of choice in marketing all kinds of supposed financial opportunities in America.  No one wants his children to stay down on the farm any longer, unless, of course, it’s high-profit industrial strength agro enterprise growing genetically engineered cash crops and hormone-ramped livestock.  Steve hasn’t the shrewdness of Sue.  In his pitches, he immediately skips to the bottom line, bluntly telling his prospects they’ll make a lot of money with fracking.  When one young farmer asks eagerly what kind of money, Steve at first has the decency to look distressed but then quickly falls in with the company’s close-the-deal imperative: You could be a millionaire.  Of course, neither Sue nor Steve mentions fracking’s possible ill effects.  That would be negative thinking, which in the land of the free is extremely unprofitable.

Soon, however, Steve’s and Sue’s initial success begins to unravel.  At a town meeting in the high-school gym, Steve takes questions from the townspeople and finds himself bushwhacked by a high-school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) who divulges the environmental concerns associated with fracking.  Steve handles the situation so clumsily that he allows the teacher to maneuver the meeting so that the people in attendance start talking about bringing the issue to a vote in a few weeks.  The next day things become dire when the improbably named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up to offer Holbrook help.  He has proof of Global’s history of environmental malfeasance, primarily a three-by-five-foot photo of cows lying hooves-up in a green meadow over an underground fracking field.

And so the fight is on, and you can pretty well forecast how it will be waged and who will win.  Or so you would think.  The narrative, however, takes an unexpected detour late in its third act that frankly surprised me—although, on reflection, I should have seen what was coming.  This turn of events redeemed many of the earlier lapses into didactic cliché and jibed with my personal experience of what well-heeled corporations have been willing to do to my own small town on eastern Long Island.  I can’t talk about that here without giving the film’s ending away.  So I’ll stay mum.

Just about everyone in America has seen the YouTube video of a farmer setting fire to the water pouring from his kitchen faucet.  This is supposed to demonstrate fracking’s environmental menace.  The hydraulic-fracturing process performs its work by first drilling into shale formations and then driving millions of gallons of water together with sand and chemicals, including some toxins such as benzene, into the shaft to fracture the shale so that it releases the gas trapped inside it.  Environmentalists claim that much of this gas migrates into the groundwater, putting people at hazard of many dangers, including flammable tap water.  The film’s point is that whatever energy benefit fracking may offer us, its environmental and health costs are unacceptably high.  The process contaminates land and water, poisons livestock and people, and destroys traditional communities.

Is this true?  The film says it is early on but then curiously muffles its claim at the conclusion.  As well it should.

Despite what we learn in the film, fracking, if done responsibly, seems to be a relatively safe method of acquiring gas.  Over the course of 50 years, it’s caused a few—very few—instances of contaminated water in the United States.  In Arizona, a company made the mistake of drilling for gas deposits trapped in shale much too close to the region’s aquifer, contaminating some residents’ water.  In Pennsylvania, drillers failed to reinforce the steel tube through which their bit passed on its way to the gas deposits, allowing methane to escape with similar consequences.  And that’s about it for serious problems.  And the burning water?  It turns out its cause wasn’t fracking at all.  The company that drilled the farmer’s well hadn’t conducted proper testing.  They sent the pipe directly into a water pocket that happened to contain a methane deposit.  Fracking has risks, but they’re not nearly as terrifying as the film sometimes suggests.  Nor are they any more daunting than the hazards of developing many another energy source.  Promised Land could have been better if it had acknowledged all this—which, to be absolutely fair, it makes a pass at doing in its odd closing.

On the plus side, fracking supporters argue this technology will increasingly be used to tap oil deposits in shale as well as natural gas.  By 2035, they predict, America will be a net exporter of oil and no longer dependent on Middle East resources.  Wouldn’t that be welcome?  Further, they envision fracking as yielding what they call a bridge energy reserve that will give us time to develop alternate sources that are even cleaner and, eventually, cheaper.

This, I suppose, is the unspoken promise of Promised Land.