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'Promised Land': Fracking as Hollywood tells it

"Promised Land," starring Matt Damon (right) and opening nationally in theaters, provides a nuanced account of fracking in rural Pennsylvania -- up to a point.

Does politics belong in the movies? Director Frank Capra once said, "if you want to send a message, try Western Union."

The film "Promised Land" considers the controversial drilling practice of fracking. But despite the title, it's theology-free, says co-writer and star Matt Damon.

"It's not meant to give you any answers," Damon says, in an interview released by the production company. "It's actually just meant to catalyze some conversation and reflection."

Damon plays a natural gas landman: a salesman who goes to a Pennsylvania town, and talks farmers into allowing drilling on their property. In exchange for money.

His character, Steve Butler, is a country boy himself.

"I grew up in a large farming community," Butler says in one restaurant scene, drinking a $400 bottle of Bordeaux with a colleague. "Football Fridays, tractor pulls, cowtipping, all of it."

Butler talks of his hometown in Iowa, how the economy died when the Caterpillar plant closed.

"The truth was, without the plant, without the industry we had nothing," Steve Butler says. "And my whole town was ... I'm not selling them natural gas, I'm selling them the only way they have to get back."

He's too earnest to be a underhanded corporate Grinch. If anything, Matt Damon's heart seems three sizes too big.

He's almost too earnest to be an underhanded corporate Grinch. If anything, Matt Damon's heart seems three sizes too big. So as the farmers decide about fracking, an environmentalist with a baseball cap shows up to push back.

John Krasinski's character, Dustin Noble, goes man-to-man with Damon's Steve Butler in a local bar, asking if he "has what it takes."

Dustin: Do you have what it takes, Steve?

Steve: Hmm?

Dustin: Think you have what it takes?

Steve: Oh, to beat you? Yeah, absolutely.

Dustin: Well, you just might.

Steve: Hey man, I'll drink to that.

Dustin: Okay.

This duel stars two nice, manipulative guys -- yes, nuance. That is, til the voice of conscience in the film starts painting in black and white.

Hal Holbrook plays high school science teacher Frank Yates, who challenges natural gas guy at a town meeting. He says fracking's risk "is too high."

Frank: Mr. Butler, you and I both know the information I've been talking about is vast and detailed.

Steve: You're probably right, I'm certainly, I'm not the guy with all the answers

Frank: Oh, well then you're the perfect guy for them to send here to deny everything.

This truth-teller says fracking "scorches the earth under our feet." That it's selling out the future. A plot twist at the end confirms the corporate villain.

Ok -- bye bye reality.

Yes, gas companies have been found to spill chemicals, in spots where animals have died. Some have built wells poorly, allowing natural gas in water wells.

But in many parts, industry has fracked without incident for decades.

So it seems reasonable to ask: could fracking be like air travel, a manageable risk with strict rules? Could there be bigger risks to water than fracking? Could the experts not have all the answers yet?

This film, though, invites commentators who already have them.

An oil and gas group has a counter-film ready, with "the real facts."

And on the other side, Yoko Ono heads a new Hollywood group dead-set against fracking. Check your social media listings.

Is this the conversation Damon had in mind?

For those of you who think there's a more grownup debate to be had -- on energy and jobs, taxes and subsidies, carbon pollution and future generations -- "Promised Land" leaves you in the wilderness.


So how accurate is "Promised Land"? Scott does some fact-checking on his new blog, The New Petro-State?

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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I am baffled by the statement
"So it seems reasonable to ask: could fracking be like air travel, a manageable risk with strict rules?"

Is Mr. Tong suggesting that fracking is strictly regulated? If so, he is sadly mistaken. Few issues are as frustrating as the almost utter lack of rules on fracking. We can only hope and pray that one day it might be strictly regulated like air travel! This commentary unfairly implies that it already is.

The fact that much fracking occurs without harm only confirms the benefits of rules. Most air traffic occurs without incidence - but is this a reason to close down the FAA? Why shouldn't the public know what chemicals are used ? Why do environmental rules that serve us well for other resource extraction not pertain to fracking?

Perhaps I can state this as clearly as the commentator below does:
No regulation (i.e., the current situation) == BAD
Regulation to ensure the environment and people's rights are protected while jobs and economic benefits are created ==GOOD.

Fair synopsis.

One wonders, what can Hollywood accurately ever portray regarding science or business? One can imagine it is possible but seldom achieved. An anti-market ideology is baked in before the script ever emerges.

Are there commercial movies are nuanced and balanced with regard to benefits & costs of a modern business (or, economy in the big picture)?

The standard formula is:
Companies == BAD. Business == Evil
Pie-eyed individuals == Good. The more ignorant & idealistic, the better.

Not very useful in everyday life or accurate.

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