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Issue #1592      May 8, 2013

Film Review by Richard Titelius

Promised Land

Recently, Perth had its first screening of the new Matt Damon movie, Promised Land. Damon stars in the movie along with John Krasinski with whom he co-wrote the screenplay. They have roles which initially pit their characters against each other.

Matt Damon.

The movie is about the fracking for shale gas – not natural gas as is stated a number of times by the protagonists for fracking in the movie.

Despite its less than critical acclaim and being a bomb at the box office – it is doubtful whether the movie will recoup its backers’ the $15 million it cost to make – the film works. Its characters are warm and human. It makes you think about the contradictions of capitalism, of which the gas fracking industry is very much a part. The movie was originally to be directed by Matt Damon but was given over to Gus Van Sant.

The first contradiction is revealed as the credits are rolling at the beginning of the movie – the fact that it was financed by Image Media Abu Dhabi from the United Arab Emirates, one of the charter members of the OPEC oil cartel. While having oil and gas interests finance a movie about fracking may muddy the waters somewhat, there are still a number of messages in the movie about personal responsibility and idealism which should not be forgotten.

The protagonist, Steve Butler (played by Damon) is an energy company numbers man who with another official, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), have the task of convincing people in a struggling town in rural Pennsylvania to sell leases of their land to the company, so that it can frack for gas.

They are so inauthentic that they rock up to Gas, Groceries, Guns and Guitars general store to buy clothes and shoes so that they fit in with the natives as they try to lease their land. But so much else about them is a dead giveaway that it takes about five seconds for each of the townspeople to figure them out.

Set in a time after the release of the iconic movie on fracking, Gaslands, to which oblique references are made in Promised Land, the townspeople, who are often struggling economically, are not so down on their knees that they can’t see what the implications are for their way of life and their health.

The scene is then set for the man from Global Energy to meet his antagonist, a mysterious environmental activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) with an easy message to sell the townspeople.

The message is too easy and simplistic for a few of the more scientifically minded in the town like the high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) who is also a retired professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The science teacher is arguably the real hero of this movie as it is he who comes closest to the real issues which bedevil this form of energy extraction. The environmental consultant who runs a shadowy company called Athena starts putting up signs saying, “Global Go Home” and handing out leaflets and pamphlets and giving a flashy demonstration in a high school science class on the effects of gas fracking by setting fire to a model of a rural farm scene.

When there is a public meeting at the local high school hall, scare tactics are used to prey on people’s fear of economic uncertainty in the area: “Do you want to support gas because if you don’t you may lose your livelihoods and your homes?”

However, scientists or technicians who knew something about shale gas and the gas fracking process were not invited to this meeting, for if they had attended not many people would have signed their leases.

This is much like many of the public meetings for coal seam gas in the eastern states of Australia and shale or tight gas in Western Australia. If there are any experts that attend these community information sessions they are usually industry people or apologists for them in government bureaucracies.

If public health people don’t toe the government line they are disinvited as was the case in Gingin, Western Australia in June 2012, when the Chairman for Doctors for the Environment had been too critical but truthful about some of the chemical cocktails that go down with the water into these fracking bores to help release the gas that is in the shale formations thousands of metres beneath the surface.

One is seen as being anti-progress and anti-job for opposing fracking using arguments such as, “Let us run everything on rainbows and happy thoughts”. But little mention is made of renewable energy throughout the movie which could overcome many of the hazardous shortcomings of shale gas – wind, solar, geothermal, tidal.

It is the appeal to self-interest and especially economic arguments which predominate to try to overcome the townspeople and which the protagonists from Global Energy use against themselves to overcome their own social and environmental conscience.

Steve Butler’s female partner from Global Oil says she has a son to finance through college and their work signing the town’s people up on leases is just a job like any other job to help support her and pay the bills.

The movie’s climax or anti-climax brings all these thoughts and ideas together into a somewhat inconclusive ending that leaves you wondering and hopefully thinking and wanting more answers than a movie from Hollywood can provide.

Even John Hangar, a Democrat and former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (the US state where this movie takes place – and also much of the iconic movie on fracking, Gaslands) calls Promised Land, “pretty silly entertainment” that, “doesn’t pretend to deal with the real issues,” or does it?

Promised Land is ultimately a must see movie so that all people can understand in plain terms the duplicitous and disingenuous arguments that the proponents of gas fracking will try and put forward to people to win over communities and individuals.   

Next article – Stealing Syria’s oil

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