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Anti-Fracking Activists Now Have a Major Motion Picture with Megastar Matt Damon to Boost the Cause

Matt Damon's promised land is out in theaters now.
 
 
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

The 2010 documentary Gasland, made by filmmaker Josh Fox, catapulted the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” into the mainstream public’s consciousness. The film went on to be nominated for an Oscar and also won an Emmy. Fox has since become a stalwart of the anti-fracking movement, and celebrities are jumping into the fray as well. Mark Ruffalo, who lives in upstate New York, emerged as an early activist against fracking. In August Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon launched a celebrity-heavy Artists Against Fracking event, which featured Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lady Gaga, Uma Thurman, and Hugh Jackman, among others.  

Now, fracking has officially gone Hollywood. For months, those involved in exposing the dangers of fracking have eagerly awaited the release of the new film Promised Land. The wait is now over. Cowritten by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, and directed by Gus Van Sant, Promised Land was blasphemed by the gas industry even before it was released. But while the industry may be unhappy with the anti-corporate message of the movie, the film ultimately falls pretty flat if you’re looking for strong language about the dangers of fracking.

Let’s blame Josh Fox. Ultimately, the bar has been set too high. Gasland provided a glimpse into a living hell for many people impacted by drilling — drinking water erupting in flames, scary health problems, unlivable homes. And it was real. Promised Land on the other hand is not — it’s a Hollywood rendition and as such grossly simplifies the issue, providing the requisite (and pretty unconvincing) romantic storyline. While the entire movie is not predictable, you can guess the gist of it about 15 minutes in.

Writing for the New York Times, A.O. Scott says:  

“Promised Land” itself, however, has a point to make, and it does so in a way that is both honorable and disappointing. It admirably tries to represent both sides of the fracking debate, even though its allegiance is clearly to the antifracking position. There is nothing wrong with such advocacy, except that in this case it means that the movie veers away from its strengths, ending in a welter of convenient (and dubious) plot twists and puffed-up speeches.

Viewers who are already skeptical of fracking are likely to find gratification in the film’s sentimental, studiously ambiguous conclusion. Those seeking scientific information will need to look elsewhere — not that rigorous science is what anyone expects from a movie. But “Promised Land” feels divided against itself, not quite sure how to reconcile its polemical intentions with its storytelling impulses, and thus finally unable to fulfill its own promise.

Still, it’s not without some value. As a Hollywood flick starring Damon, Krasinski, Frances McDormand and Rosemarie DeWitt, it’s likely to attract viewers who aren’t looking for a treatise on fracking but may be inclined to learn more about it after the movie. It also exposes some of the industry’s dirty talking points, like falsely portraying fracked shale gas as a clean environmental alternative to dirty oil and coal. 

Then there is the posturing that rural America is dying (a main theme of the movie and the motivation behind Damon’s character) and that the gas industry is the only economic salve for the wound. Damon’s character Steve Butler -- a salesman for a natural gas company -- has no retort when he’s told by one camo-wearing farmer he tries to woo, “The only reason you’re here is because we’re poor.” Economically struggling rural areas have always been a target for polluting industries of all kind. Promised Land beats that message home. (Although fracking is not only taking place in rural areas these days.) 

In short, if you’re expecting a film that’s an anthem for the anti-fracking movement, Promised Land will disappoint. If you’re just looking for some Hollywood escapism with far less violence that some recent new releases (no one gets shot and only one punch is thrown), then buy your ticket.

Tara Lohan is a freelance writer and former senior editor at AlterNet. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan or visit her website, taralohan.com.

 
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