Wednesday, January 02, 2013
"Promised Land": is it too risky for America to develop natural gas on its heartlands?
The “Promised Land” seems to be western Pennsylvania, maybe thirty miles from Pittsburgh, where the Alleghenies slowly recede into Ohio. In this movie, directed by Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon plays a “consultant”, really a door-to-door salesman, for a natural gas company looking to acquire drilling leases and rights on farmland over the Marcellus Shale formation. Yes, this film, from Participant Media and Focus Features (Universal), plays like a docudrama, almost a stage play, about the fracking (or fracturing) controversy.
I visited the area myself Veterans Day weekend, particularly around Cadiz, Ohio and Latrobe, PA (see the “Issues” blog, Nov. 12, 2012). The only big setup I saw was near Cadiz.
There are really two issues in this movie. The first concerns the wisdom of using fracking as part of our domestic energy policy. The Pickens Plan says that we can free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil by emphasizing natural gas, and using sources that actually do produce much more oil also (as opposed to coal, or “clean coal” – with all the aesthetic and environmental objections to mountaintop removal). It may well be true that the US can become energy independent. Can it do so while decreasing carbon emissions?
Can it do so also without damaging the farmland it mines, including release of toxin and damage to the water table and even to livestock? The film poses this question in economic terms (approaching blackmail): farmers (facing foreclosures and cutbacks in federal help from "fiscal cliff" problems) can become millionaires if they risk the viability of their land, often held in families for generations.
The second issue in the movie is the way people work and the way people have to struggle with their lots in life. Steve Butler (Damon) has been selling leases one at a time, but is under pressure from his company Global and his boss (Frances McDormand) to sign everyone and to prevent or stave off a vote in the town on allowing leases at all. He meets the inevitable opposition, and he is expected to manipulate the locals at open-mike nights in the local bar and by any other means available, including paying secret bribes to politicians and organizing a county fair to show the locals the value of getting rich. (On that regard, the movie honors the first episode of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” by showing a middle school girl selling lemonade.) This is work – manipulating people to sell them anything in a one-sided manner by creating urgency and overcoming objections – that I personally am too introverted and schizoid to do. Remember the mantra “Always Be Closing” (and The 100 Mile Rule”).
Butler meets plenty of opposition, first from the thoughtful elderly school teacher Frank Yates (Hal Hollbrook), and then from a slender, charismatic young man from an activist group called “Athena”, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski). He also dates another female teacher (Rosemarie Dewitt).
Eventually, there are at least two clever plot twists, that seem a bit contrived. Movies need to have “endings”, but maybe the plot really does show the futility in working in sales for someone else. This oil company really had all bases covered -- or did it? But my own father sold "other people's goods" for forty years.
The film is based on a story by Dave Eggers, and the screenplay was adapted and written by Damon and Krasinski.
Van Sant’s camera does dawdle a bit on male aesthetics at times. In his world, men should be like redbird male cardinals, noticed for beauty. Both Krasinski and Damon look to be in great shape, rather like permanent teenagers themselves.
Here is Damon’s New York Times interview.
I saw this before a fair crowd at Landmark;s Bethesda Row in Maryland. Right now it is playing in only one theater in the DC area, though from a major company. Why?