'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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No hate mail from me. Folks get very upset hearing facts that bend their beliefs but that's life. Keep it up and we right wingers may learn to adapt better than just ignoring the facts.


Marketplace needs to fire Scott Tong for cause. This article violates basic standards of journalism.

Scott Tong says:

"A plot twist at the end confirms the corporate villain. Ok -- bye bye reality."

This was not presented as sarcasm.
For this statement to make any sense, Scott Tong must believe that our reality has NO corporate villains, or he is selfishly willing to benefit himself somehow even if it harms everyone else.

As a news organization dedicated to business news, APM Marketplace above all should know that our capitalism is littered with ample examples of such corporate villains. To have an attitude that is in such obvious conflict with we know is true suggests Scott Tong is happy to ignore evidence that conflicts with his preconceptions about what he thinks is true, or he knows the truth but wants to actively disinform the audience anyway.

Scott Tong also makes an extraordinary whopper of claim:

"industry has fracked without incident for decades."

He lets this fish-tale of a proposition go completely unsupported in an entirely non-journalistic fashion.

If I knew nothing else about this situation, I could not help but notice this story seems to follow the common patterns of corrupted journalist seen today:
1. Lobbyist front group makes false claims to press.
2. "Journalist" asks no questions, challenges nothing, writes down claims as though he is just a stenographer.
3. "Journalist" presents industry's false claims as "fact" to large audience by repeating them without doing any research that could have disproven false claims.


1. Ideologue holds mental model of reality that has huge discrepancies with actual reality. These discrepancies are easily discernible to the common man.
2. Ideologue gains access to a broadcast medium. Pretends to be a journalist or an analyst with a normally respectable opinion.
3. Ideologue presents goofball claims as facts to large audience, abuses access to a broadcast vector to create false impression of credibility.
4. Ideologue unjustly earns lots of attention for his verifiably incorrect ideas.
5. Station does not notice or care the Ideologue is clearly wrong. Station may benefit from the false drama the Ideologue creates, willfully allows the corrupt situation it is fully aware of to continue.

If basic journalism had occurred here, there are some basic questions about the statement "industry has fracked without incident for decades." that Scott Tong would have provided answers to:
WHO:Name all the companies who have supposedly fracked safely.
WHO:Are they same companies that want to frack now?
WHAT:Are these frackers using the same people, materials, equipment & methods now that have supposedly been used safely in the past?
WHAT:Were the very same mystery chemical that they want to use now used during the supposedly safe fracking?
WHEN:On what dates decades ago did this claimed safe fracking occur?
WHERE:Scott Tong should have provided the geographic coordinates for the locations of this supposed safe fracking of decades ago.
WHY:If fracking as it is understood today has truly been around "for decades", why are we only finding out about it now?
WHY:If past fracking similar to modern fracking has occurred, does it appear safe due to a lack of oversight at that time? Was there a comprehensive monitoring program put in place in advance to detect water contamination?
HOW:Do frackers use company specific chemical markers in their fluids so they can be held accountable when their chemicals show up in our drinking water?
HOW:Are frackers prohibited from conducting an operation unless EPA inspectors are present for the duration of the activity?
MONEY:Are there corrupt incentives? Do some landholders of towns that permit fracking take the money & run, so they never have to suffer the consequences of contaminated drinking water they leave behind for their neighbors?

This report was so bad, American Public Media needs to ascertain whether or not Scott Tong has any kind of financial interest in fracking or "good old boy" corruption network interest in pushing disinformation upon the audience.

I listen to Marketplace to get a perspective where people are victims and business is evil. Mr. Tong started down the expected path and then dared to recognize that there could be another valid view. Mr. Tong, keep up the good work. I am appalled but not surprised by the majority of comments posted here.

I expected so much more from MARKETPLACE. But after listening to that awful review by Scott Tong about Matt Damon's film PROMISED LAND, I am wondering what happened. I became more perturbed after reading that Tong "is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy."

A correspondent focusing on sustainability and the environment should have raised these issues in the review. He should have reminded listeners that there is a great need for renewable energy sources? What about listing all of the environmental problems caused by pumping chemicals into the earth?

The review went downhill quickly, and landed with a thud after Tong said this:

" 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." What is the basis for such a statement? What study has Tong examined?

When I listen to MARKETPLACE I expect the facts. Tong did not explain that Dick Cheney got an exemption to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts for corporations doing fracking. There was no mention that the companies refuse to list the more than 600 chemicals, many toxic, that are being pumped into the ground during fracking.

In Maryland we have managed to get a moratorium on fracking. And this year in the legislature, there is legislation asking the oil and gas companies to pay for an environmental study on fracking. Of course, the corporations are fearful of funding a study that will expose the long list of environmental degradations across the country.

One could argue water is our most precious resource. Why would one put profit before protecting our water supplies? Please do not allow Scott Tong to do any more film reviews, otherwise I might have to listen to him reporting that Gordon Gekko was a great humanitarian responsible for fairness on Wall Street.

Now that American Petroleum Media is owned by the oil and gas industry, I guess you don't need private donations anymore. Either Mr. Tong is totally ignorant about fracking (hard to believe), or he's been told what his stance is on this issue.

Relentless cheery coverage on fracking from the 'Sustainability Desk' (fracking sustainable?--there's an oxymoron for you) , and not one balanced piece among them. Marketplace has sacrificed its credibility for the big bucks. It's a real shame, because I used to value your coverage as uncompromised news.

Mr. Tong has done a disservice to this article and it's readers by failing to include the fact that Mr. Damon's new film was partially financed by Image Nation Abu Dhabi. And by the way, Image is wholly owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, a MAJOR oil producing OPEC member. So no matter what side of the fracking fence one's politics resides, a political film that attempts to discourage gas exploration, funded by OPEC, seems a tad bit ironic to me ... But that's just considering the facts.

There is a more fundamental problem: the notion that any energy future that relies on relentless exploitation of fossil fuels will avert the climate crisis we are creating. The natural gas boom driven by improved fracking plays a special role in creating an energy myth in which a bounty of energy and jobs will come to the US without any resulting damage. Natural gas might be useful as very short term transitional energy source, but that is not how the fracking industry sees things: they just want to continue to extract every ounce of hydrocarbon out of the earth and then burn it.This also leaves aside he question oaf how much methane is being released.

Hollywood, Schmollywood...who cares? The reality is that if 'Fracking' is allowed in all states nationwide, eventually all ground water will become poisoned as will we by drinking/using it. Jobs mean nothing if we are gradually all sick, we won't be around to create an economy. Instead of oil/corn/soy subsidies..........increased subsidies from our taxes should be applied to solar/tidal/thermal & wind R & D....but, alas this Govt.says. - NASA 's got the o.k. to rape MARS.

Promised Land may not be a great film, but the idea that movies cannot or should not be political is ridiculous. Even films that are supposedly "entertainment only" have political themes and messages, such as Batman Rising or Skyfall. Mr. Tong also did not do much homework when he decided to use one the most overused clichés in film criticism. He quoted Frank Capra as saying "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." The quote is most often attributed to film mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who supposedly said it in 1943. As for Capra's film politics, I recently watched It's a Wonderful Life over the holidays. I was struck by this line, which George Bailey says to Mr. Potter: "This rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?" If this line were in a movie today, wouldn't it sound, well, political?


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