This month, a new film starring Matt Damon and directed by Gus Van Sant, will hit select theaters in time for the holiday movie-going season, a film that will familiarize Americans, if they’re not already, with the f-word—fracking.
(Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing for the uninitiated, is the controversial method of extracting oil and gas by injecting millions of gallons of high-pressure fluids deep underground to fracture rock formations.)
Environmentalists warn that fracking poses serious dangers to groundwater, air quality and public health. They point to evidence that the process can cause earthquakes. Proponents, mostly big oil companies, say that’s nonsense. They argue that fracking is unleashing impressive amounts of domestic energy, decreasing reliance on foreign oil and creating jobs.
Guess which side Matt Damon is on?
In Promised Land Damon plays a young corporate salesman, Steve Butler, who grew up in the heartland and moved to the big city to seek opportunities not available in his small town. On the verge of reaching executive status with his natural gas company, Butler is sent to a rural farming community in Pennsylvania along with his partner, played by Frances McDormand, to buy out the town and begin fracking the hell out of their farmland. Butler’s higher-ups assure him that this is the best thing that could happen to these people who’ve been hit hard by the recession. In fact, many do stand to make millions.
Enter environmentalist Dustin Noble, played by The Office’s John Krasinski. Noble riles the town with a grassroots anti-fracking campaign that includes announcing that fracking killed his farmland. “The land just turned brown and it died,” he says in the trailer. “It’s happened to one of us, it can happen to all of us.” Also featured in the trailer is a short clip of Noble setting a model farm on fire in front of a class of elementary school kids for effect. (This is presumably a reference to a scene from the anti-fracking documentary Gasland in which a man is able to light his tap water on fire.) If that weren’t enough, everybody’s dream grandpa Hal Holbrook plays a local schoolteacher who roundly disapproves of this whole fracking idea.
“You’re a good man, Steve. I just wish you weren’t doing this,” he tells Damon’s character in the trailer. Yeouch.
Critics of the film—mostly conservative news sources at this point since the general public hasn’t seen the film —say the movie is essentially liberal propaganda. One of their favorite items to point out is that Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which helped finance the film, is owned by United Arab Emirates, an oil rich nation that would stand to profit billions by delaying the growth of America’s natural fuel industry. Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer, who is working on his own fracking documentary and who also directed a documentary called Not Evil, Just Wrong to challenge Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, first raised the issue of Image Nation’s involvement at a promotional Q&A for Promised Land. The confrontation was captured on video by McAleer’s team.
In the clip, Damon, who co-wrote the script with Krasinski, says the film was actually funded by Focus Features and Participant Media. Participant, Damon explains, has a deal with Image Nation, which finances 10 percent of all Focus films sight-unseen.
“The first time we were aware that Image Nation was involved with our movie was when we saw the rough cut and saw their logo, and that’s that.” Damon tells McAleer.
It seems with a deal like that, the government of UAE is probably unaware that they helped fund Promised Land, either.
Later, a podcast of the event posted on iTunes was lacking McAleer’s question, according to The Hollywood Reporter—a fact flogged on the social media site of Energy in Depth, a leading pro-fracking public outreach campaign launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).
According to The Guardian, Energy in Depth is just one of many pro-fracking interests that are preparing for the public backlash that could result from Promised Land. It has, for example, drafted a fact sheet it is considering sending to the press and distributing to moviegoers.
For their parts, Damon and Krasinski told Peter Tavers of Rolling Stone magazine that judging Promised Land as “the anti-fracking movie” without having seen it is a mistake.
“We’re both happy to discuss anything once people have actually seen the movie and they know what it is they’re upset or feeling good about,” Krasinski said.
“It’s all grey area to me,” said Tavers, who has presumably seen the film. “It’s all people saying, ‘I need the money. What am I doing? How do I justify it to myself?’ It’s people.”
“Frances McDormand’s character is making her decisions entirely on her son and on taking care of her kid,” Damon added. “We all know those people. That’s us.”
The title of the film is ambiguous. In the Bible, the Promised Land is a gift from God. But is man’s moral obligation to guard it, or exploit it for the natural resources it provides? I look forward to finding out soon.