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Law Review: Promised Land

Submitted by on January 29 – 2013No Comment

The CIA must be glad that Matt Damon finally stopped making movies about them. While America’s most passionate (and most handsome!) actor advocate may be taking an eight-year break from roasting the clandestine service, he has not abandoned the fight for social justice. His latest feature from Gus Van Sant, who directed Damon in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” is about the latest environmental cause celebre: hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” especially among fans of Battlestar Galactica.

Fracking is not always a step in the development of natural gas resources, but it has come to serve as the one-word rallying cry for gas industry opponents and proponents. The science of gas extraction and its effect on the environment are frustratingly complex. Burned gas emits far less carbon into the atmosphere than coal or oil products. Gas also beats coal and oil because it can be acquired without sending people deep into the earth to get black-lunged, or to foreign lands to get blown-up. Unfortunately, gas is not a harmless source of energy. Some gas production sites have drawn environmental criticism due to accusations, many confirmed, of causing dangerous water pollution.  New York State bans hydraulic fracturing altogether, whereas Pennsylvania allows the practice if companies meet regulations to limit pollution risks. Environmental groups are split on the process. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund have taken the position that fracking can be allowed, but only if it is strictly regulated—more strictly than it is now.  Others take a sterner line: “Fossil fuels have no part in America’s energy future—coal, oil, and natural gas are literally poisoning us,” according to Sierra Club President Robin Mann. The Environmental Protection Agency favors carefully regulated fracking, but says that more research is required to determine the extent of its dangers. To all of the compromisers and doubters, film companies Focus Features and Image Nation Abu Dhabi FZ have one reply: Matt Damon.

In “Promised Land,” Damon gives his customarily strong understated performance as gas company land acquirer Steve Butler. Accompanied by another consultant, played by the always-excellent Frances McDormand, Butler negotiates contracts throughout the rural heartland, convincing farmers to lease their land to the gas company. Unfortunately for the trusting farmers, the gas company has the word “Global” in its name, a dead giveaway that it is at least a little evil. Global is probably not going to pay the farmers as much as Butler implies, and even if all their cows don’t die within the first nine months, the land is going to be “scorched” either way. For a successful gas company man, Butler is remarkably flatfooted in the face of environmental questions. When residents ask whether he’s going to poison their drinking water, he changes the subject to money. John Krasinski plays Dustin Noble, the environmental activist waging a one-man campaign against Butler. Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Damon, imbues Noble with the same aw-shucks charisma that made him famous on “The Office.” Noble (what a name!) also perpetrates an Office-worthy series of harmless but maddening pranks at Butler’s expense.

That fracking permanently destroys everything it touches is not a matter of dispute in the film. As Noble explains, this story is not about land; it is about people.  In “Promised Land,” some people have credibility and others do not. This all depends on who pays your salary.  The movie has one delightful twist in this regard, although the film’s climax will not shock anyone who—wait a minute. Back up two paragraphs. Did that say Image Nation Abu Dhabi FZ? Aren’t they the film arm of Abu Dhabi Media Company?  Isn’t that the state media company of His Royal Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the emir whose “constitutional monarchy” sits on nine percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, plus natural gas? As the film’s turncoat character warns: it’s better if you don’t ask a lot of questions.

“Promised Land” also stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Hal Holbrooke. It is rated “R” for language.  The film is one hour and forty-six minutes long. It will probably appeal to viewers who enjoy progressive dramas like “The Ides of March” and “The Rainmaker” (although it lacks their suspense), or paeans to farm country like “Hoosiers” and “Field of Dreams” (although it lacks their uplift). It will probably not appeal to viewers who are no more progressive-leaning than The New York Times editorial page.

–Austin Murnane