MDN Goes to the ‘Promised Land’

Promised Land MDN decided to “take one for the team” and attend Promised Land, the new anti-fracking movie by Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant, this past weekend. Prior to attending, MDN had read a number of reviews from both pro- and anti-fracking writers. Almost all of those reviews said the same thing—this movie was no China Syndrome for the fracking movement. That is, Promised Land will not be a watershed movie that wins the hearts and minds of average Americans, turning them against fracking (see Anti-Drillers Disappointed with Promised Land).

We have to agree with that assessment. However, we’ll be more charitable than many anti-fracking critics by saying overall, we thought it was a decent flick, as movies go. But then, we like sentimental “the good guy wins” kinds of movies.

Spoiler Warning: This review gives it all up. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and plan to go, don’t read this review just yet. Go and see the movie, then come back and read this review. So let’s get down to it…

This is a big budget Hollywood movie with big Hollywood stars: Matt Damon in the lead, co-starring John Krasinski (who co-wrote the script with Damon), Francis McDormand, Hal Holbrook and Rosemarie DeWitt. These are very polished and professional actors—all of them. If you put the content of the movie aside, these stars all turn in stellar performances. You believe they are the characters they portray.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? You can’t put the content aside.

Damon and McDormand play landmen out to sign up farmers and rural landowners in a small Pennsylvania town—what will be the first of many communities they intend to sign to leases. The company Damon and McDormand represent is Global Cross-Power Solutions, a $9 billion oil and gas exploration and production company. Damon, although ostensibly having grown up in Iowa, tries to blend in with the locals by purchasing flannel shirts and wearing his grandfather’s boots. Our intrepid duo drives a rented Ford Bronco (circa 1990, stick shift). The attempt to blend in is a not-so-subtle foreshadow that these people are trying to look like something they are not.

Damon’s character starts out as kind of a sleaze—bribing the local town supervisor for his support early on in the movie (for $30,000). Also early on, Damon mentions to McDormand they’re authorized to go as high as $5,000 per acre for a signing bonus and 18% royalties—but the first family he approaches, he tells them the highest they can go is $2,000 per acre. Yet somehow (through star-power? charisma? really good acting?) you get the feeling that deep down Damon is “not a bad guy,” as he repeatedly claims throughout the movie, mostly to his love interest, a local school teacher.

A town meeting is held in the school gymnasium, which is supposed to be a formality to ratify support (from the bribed town supervisor) for Global and their efforts. But Hal Holbrook, local science teacher (and retired rocket scientist), questions the practice of fracking, lobbing out the standard arguments that have been heard (and debunked) a million times. Damon takes to the microphone to challenge him and, when he can’t win the argument, in frustration says, “It’s just your opinion sir.” Then a dramatic turning point in the story—about half the people at the meeting stand up with Holbrook, in a surprise show of resistance to Global. The meeting ends with an agreement that the town will vote up or down on whether or not to allow fracking—with the vote coming in three weeks’ time. The prospect of a vote that may undo all of their hard work sends our “hero” Damon on his quest to vanquish the forces of “evil” against him, and the scene is set for the rest of the movie.

The specter of a town vote sets off alarms back at evil Global headquarters. Damon assures his money-grubbing overlords that he can get a positive vote in the next three weeks. He and McDormand proceed to work hard and in no time they have more than half the local landowners signed to deals—but of course it all means nothing if the town votes to ban fracking. And of course non-landowners outnumber landowners—so there’s still a real possibility that the vote will go the “wrong” way. Then, right on cue to complicate our hero’s life, a foil appears.

A white knight environmentalist rides into town, hailing from an unheard-of organization called Athena. This one, lone environmentalist starts telling a disturbing story about how Global screwed his family. According to our Sierra Club-style environmentalist, he once lived on a farm and after Global started drilling nearby, his dad’s cows started to die. Within nine months his dad lost the farm because the animals died and he had no way to make a living. Yeah, it’s a hackneyed storyline, but it kind of works—stick with us…

Our environmentalist white knight starts winning over the hearts of the townspeople. It turns into a “anything you can do I can do better” contest as he pops up everywhere, much to the frustration of hero Damon and sidekick McDormand. The environmentalist is on people’s front porches convincing them to post anti-drilling signs…he’s in the bar on karaoke night singing better than the Global people sing…he even steals Damon’s love interest (the teacher) and takes her on a date!

The most painful scene (for us) was seeing the environmentalist have at it in a classroom—brainwashing the little kiddies with outright lies about fracking by using a model of a farm and lighting the whole thing on fire. Sick.

All seems lost for our semi-sleazy (but sympathetic and improving) hero, Damon. He can’t even organize a local town fair—it gets rained out. We actually feel bad for him—we’re invested in his character by this point. And then, at the darkest hour, right before the big vote he may lose, a brilliant light shines! Damon learns that the environmentalist white knight has been lying (cue the boos and hisses reserved for Snidely Whiplash). The environmentalist said he was from Nebraska, but the pictures of his dad’s dead cows? In the background, it shows a lighthouse. Oops. There are no lighthouses in Nebraska. The environmentalist has been found out, hooray!

As the environmentalist attempts to slink out of town in the dark of night, right before the big vote (because now the vote will definitely go in Global’s favor), Damon confronts the white-now-turned-black knight one last time. Damon asks him, What were you thinking, man? Did you not know we would find out and expose you? You’ve damaged your own cause—now we’ll win!

The kicker (that frankly, we didn’t see coming) from Damon’s confrontation…we find out the supposedly hapless environmentalist is not really an environmentalist at all—he works for Global too. It was all a charade unbeknownst to Damon. Global set it up so in the end their faux environmentalist would intentionally be discredited and the vote would go in their favor. It was a gigantic head fake—a manipulation. The evil Global was pulling the strings on both sides of the issue to ensure a positive outcome.

Damon, our hero who was once kind of sleazy but has grown, is now faced with a dilemma—whether to stay silent or prove he really isn’t a bad guy after all, by exposing the great lie concocted by his own company. Of course he chooses to be virtuous and spills the beans at the big vote. McDormand the sidekick, on the other hand, rushes out of the meeting to rat him out to their superiors with the intention of taking his job. It seems she’s a model Global employee after all.

A few thoughts about the characters in the movie, including how the townspeople were characterized…The movie attempts to capture the flavor of a small, rural town—Anytown, USA. Overall, we’d say it does a fair job. In movies you must use archetypes, or if you will, stereotypes. You need cardboard cutouts as stand-ins when you have a medium as brief as a movie. The people who populate the town are archetypal, or stereotypical. But here’s where we might differ with some reviewers—we think some of those archetypes were fair and accurate. For example, we didn’t feel the way the ordinary folks were portrayed was intentionally demeaning or belittling (a criticism we’ve read and previously reported).

Damon is the archetypal hero who loses his way for a time, but in the end, redeems himself and finds his way “home.” Hal Holbrook is the archetypal wise old owl—the voice of wisdom. He’s the “good angel” who sits on Damon’s shoulder to counsel him and try to help him find the road back home, assuring him that deep down he really is a good man. One exception we did take was the way Global was portrayed as an archetype of an evil corporation pretending to be something they are not—willing to screw over the townspeople just to make a few bucks. Come on! Does the left never tire of repeating that whopper? You know they’re stereotyping when they use the word “big” in front of their favorite/latest target, as in “big oil and gas.”

Fracking was only lightly treated in the movie—and when it was discussed, it was misrepresented. As entertainment, we’d say the movie works and is at some level enjoyable. But only if you know nothing about the truth of fracking, and only if you’re willing to blindly accept kindergartenish concepts like gas corporations are evil and just want money and don’t care if they pollute and ‘scorch the earth’ as Holbrook said in the movie. This movie (like many movies today) simply asked us not to think. They want to spoon feed us pabulum instead of solid meat.

Promised Land could have been an excellent movie, but it missed the mark. They could have dealt with serious issues—industrialization and truck traffic, fair lease negotiations, methane migration, and the fact that no energy source, including renewables like wind and solar, is without negative impacts. Instead, the movie settled for a cheap “don’t think too hard and just enjoy the popcorn” approach. It works. It’s an OK movie. Perhaps even enjoyable. But it’s certainly nothing to get worked up about in our humble opinion. The pro-fracking side would be far better off simply ignoring it. Almost everyone else has!

The movie opened to limited screens its first weekend. This past weekend was the second weekend it was in theaters (and the first weekend in “wide release”). Over the two weeks it’s been out, the movie has made a grand total of something like $4.5 million in revenue. Which means it’s a complete and utter bomb at the box office—it’ll be a second run movie in another week or two at most. They won’t even come close to covering the cost of making the movie.

On local opening weekend here in Binghamton, there were maybe 35 people in the audience for the screening we attended on a Sunday afternoon. Translation: No one is watching it.

So we’ll pose our own philosophical question (with all due respect to philosopher George Berkeley): If a movie plays and nobody watches it, does it make a sound? More to the point: Does it have an impact?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

  • DeanMarshall

    Hmmm We watched this film in Selisgrove,Pa along the seriously endangered Susquehanna River. Several times durng the presentation we found the “Lump-in-the -throat ” feeling taking hold of us. The last 15 mins. just about everyone in the Theatre was moved to tears….a powerful statement! As Far as Steroetypes, Global Landman Policies were spot on from what we have seen in my neck-o-the woods! Only difference here is there were dozens of Companies lying to little old Lady’s and Poor Farm Folk! Stick with you Day Job as Film Critique is not your Forte’!

  • Jim Willis

    Thanks for your thoughts on it Dean. As always, I call them like I see them, without apology. All views welcomed on MDN as long as it’s civil.

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