Environmental issues have increasingly become polarized. No sooner has a new technology been announced than some outspoken individual climbs athwart it to cry, “Stop!” in the name of Mother Earth.
To some extent, this is desirable – wise stewardship of our shared environment and the resources it provides not only benefits the planet but its inhabitants large and small. When prejudices overwhelm wisdom, however, well-intentioned but wrongheaded projects such as Promised Land result.
The latest cinematic effort by screenwriters-actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski (from a story by David Eggers) and director Gus Van Sant, Promised Land earnestly attempts to pull back the veil of corporate duplicity to expose the evil underbelly of hydraulic fracturing, which is more commonly known as “fracking.”
The fracking technique has been employed successfully by oil and natural gas industries since the late 1940s. Briefly, fracking involves high-pressure injection of chemically lubricated water to break up rock formations in order to drive trapped fossil fuel deposits toward wellbores.
Combined with horizontal drilling and new advances in information technology, the fracking process has reinvigorated our nation’s natural gas industry and opened up new energy resources previously considered out of reach or economically unfeasible. It has also reinvigorated debate over whether the practice is environmentally sound.
Of primary concern to opponents is its impact on groundwater, an issue Promised Land does nothing to dispel despite fracking’s impressive track record over the past 60 years and numerous government reports confirming its overall benign environmental impacts.
For example, the filmmakers ignore reports from the U.S. Geological Survey that found no groundwater contamination from fracking operations in Arkansas; the New York Times publication of a leaked New York state government report concluding fracking posed no threat to groundwater; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that the water in Dimock, Pa., was safe to drink – completely invalidating claims made in the documentary propaganda film Gasland.
Promised Land features Damon as Steve Butler, the doubt-addled buyer of natural gas leases, and Krasinksi as his character foil, playing the charismatically charming environmental activist Dylan Noble. Butler, an Iowa farm boy, increasingly comes to the realization that drumming leases for corporate America requires him to repeat the unconvincing mantra that he’s a “good guy” to any character who’ll listen. Of course, viewers know that Butler will only attain Matt Damon levels of goodness by turning his back on his employer. Until then, Butler offers a $30,000 bribe to the township supervisor in return for his support, and drowns his sorrows at the local watering hole.
Noble, on the other hand, charms his way into the small Pennsylvania town where Butler plies his dubious trade. Noble litters the town’s highways and byways with yard signs adorned with dead livestock – presumably killed by drinking contaminated groundwater.
Rather than crafting an honest narrative on fracking’s merits and possible shortcomings, however, the film shifts gears at the three-quarter mark. Without spoiling an important plot development for those readers who may still desire to see it, the film veers from a screed specifically against fracking to an overall indictment of the corporation employing Butler and his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand).
Oh, and those dead cattle and the claims against fracking made by Noble and the wizened old physics professor and farmer, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook)? By the time the film credits roll, no refutation whatsoever is aired against these spurious accusations.
Promised Land falls into that category of agitprop in which the moral high ground is assumed by the artists involved simply because they’re convinced their motivations are admirable. This subjectivity is depicted as a positive end in itself, thereby failing the test of the Cornwall Declaration, which lists among its aspirations “a world in which objective moral principles – not personal prejudices – guide moral action” and “a world in which right reason (including sound theology and the careful use of scientific methods) guides the stewardship of human and ecological relationships.”
Instead, Promised Land is a failed mash-up of environmental thriller on one hand and anti-corporate propaganda on the other. It folds on the former and goes all-in on the latter with diminishing results.