12/31/2012 03:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Promised Land Something More Than It's Fracked Up to Be

The forthcoming release of "Promised Land" -- Hollywood's portrayal of the divisive shale gas drama unfolding in rural America -- is by all accounts producing high expectations among anti-frackers and anxiety among drilling supporters.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, the drama portrays the life-altering prospects of natural gas development in the fictional town of McKinley, Pennsylvania. Sound familiar? It does to me. I've been writing non-fiction accounts of the impact of gas development on Small Town USA for five four years, and so I was delighted to get an invitation from Focus Features to view a screening of "Promised Land" in Manhattan on Wednesday. The movie is set to open in certain New York City theaters next week and nationally in early January. It's been hyped as an anti-fracking movie, and much of this hype originates with industry sources who have admittedly not seen the film but who are, judging by the trailer, bracing for a blockbuster-sized publicity headache.

I was eager to see how Hollywood's rendition of the gas rush stands up against real life. I also wanted to understand how the movie might influence the discussion in a nation learning about shale gas and the risks and rewards of the controversial process that makes unconventional resource recovery possible -- high volume hydraulic fracturing. After viewing the trailer myself, I expected to see a movie with sensational and vivid depictions of both fracking and its consequences. Upon seeing the movie, I was happy to see that "Promised Land" offers neither of these but something more complex. Yes, the movie portrays Global Energy, the company that is trying to lease land from McKinley residents, as an uncaring, exploitive and divisive force. But the story is more interested in exploring the dynamics of life in a small town within the context of these outside economic forces. The movie is not, despite what some hope and others fear, a case against shale gas development in general or fracking in particular.

The screenplay features a small town official who is corrupt, an energy company that is duplicitous and controlling, a sage high school teacher who advises the community to be cautious and do its homework, and an environmental activist and community organizer with questionable motives. It features plenty of other stakeholders in lesser roles, many of whom I find to be faithful archetypes of their counterparts in the real word, including a roguish and likeable gun shop owner eager to do whatever he can to encourage the economic growth of the town and support the efforts of Global Energy. The stars of the film, however, are two leasing agents. Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a star rookie landman and all American country boy from Iowa. Butler is concerned about the decline of the family farm and, in his words, the "delusional self mythology" that modern day farming communities are economically self standing, when in fact, "without industry, there is nothing." The supporting role is Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), a wily industry veteran cast as Butler's mentor, and a career mom who misses time away from her adolescent son. Both characters are driven by their own ambition and the bidding of their employer, Global Energy. Both have conviction, a work ethic, a sense of purpose, and good humor and charm -- qualities that inspire empathy for characters that would be easy to script as simple villains.

Butler's antagonist is Brian Noble (John Krasinksi), an environmentalist who, like the leasing agent duo, is an out-of-towner. He arrives on the scene with dire warnings about the ills of fracking as he begins organizing community efforts against the company. Both Noble and Butler are strangers vying for the loyalty of the residents in bars, pastures, and kitchens of McKinley. Each are bad-boys behaving in the Hollywood bad-boy kind of way (well suited to the actors' strengths) that compels you to like them on a gut level even though your brain tells you maybe not to trust them. The emotional success of the film hinges on the Ying and Yang of their rivalry.

The plot follows the exploits of Butler and Thomason, with some predictable and not so predictable twist and with ample humor delivered through a nuanced screenplay, crisp acting and Van Sant's keen eye. There is a sense of right and wrong that crystallizes as the film progresses, but the line between hero and villain is murky, with only a few exceptions.

The prominent theme is the outsider being pulled in beyond original intentions and the insider dealing with the influence of outside pressure. The insider story is personified partly through the character of Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a hometown girl and schoolteacher who serves as the romantic interest for Butler and possibly for Noble. For me, a scene when Butler passes through the white picket fence in Alice's yard conjures the stylistically distant but thematically similar tale of The Music Man: Professor Harold Hill, the likeable shyster who attempts to sell the dream of a marching band to a local community along with non-existent uniforms and instruments, and the ensuing complications wrought by his involvement with the good-hearted local librarian. The theme is timeless and irresistible - hometown girl falling in love with the outside stranger - but I found that if the movie had a weak point dramatically, it was here, perhaps because it's execution seemed more formulaic than the rest of the film.

The most compelling scene for me, however, captures the true-life essence of the story and exhibits the strength of the film. It takes place early, when Butler visits a farm and is somewhat surprised at how warmly he is received as an agent of the gas company, even as the farmer helps him remove a tag on the landman's new flannel shirt he purchased in his attempt to fit in. As they sit across the kitchen table, the farmer -- a hardworking and earnest family man struggling to preserve his way of life against the flow of economic forces -- clearly knows why Butler has come, and he implores Butler to say what he wants to hear. Butler, a little surprised at how easy this all is, obliges: "You could be a millionaire." The farmer's reaction is what I find compelling. No words, but only a look of humble sincerity and raw hope that I found heart rending. This was probably not intended to be one of the emotional highpoints, but I found the farmer's hope and the landman's willingness to indulge it to be poignant and accurate portrayal of the non-fiction story covered by myself and other journalists chronicling the early days of the gas rush in Pennsylvania.

That coverage resulted in Under the Surface, Fracking Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale, and other non-fiction narratives of the Pennsylvania Gas Rush, including Seamus McGraw's End of Country. The non-fiction versions of the story lack the Hollywood finish of "Promised Land", a finish that is achieved by a plot contrivance that is fundamental to the workings of the script. That contrivance, possible in the creatively boundless realm of fiction, will be a sure point of criticism or acclaim that the movie will garner from both biased and neutral critics. I can't say much more without spoiling the move, but I will suggest that "Promised Land" shares a trait of "The Da Vinci Code" - director Ron Howard's adaptation of the Dan Brown novel about the Catholic Church's attempt to destroy evidence of Christ's familial legacy. By this I mean both movies use a real world setting and circumstances as a foundation for a fictional premise that makes the specific story dramatic. Most - but not all -- viewers will be fine with this.

Prior to seeing "Promised Land", I did not expect to be comparing it to The Da Vinci

Code. But I did expect - based on reports and the previews - to compare it with "The China Syndrome" - the 1979 movie about a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. The movie, starring Jane Fonda, was released with the No-Nukes movement (of which Fonda was a part of) in full swing, and just prior to the Three Miles Island disaster. The movie, riding the wave of these events -- appeared to mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. nuclear industry.

Impacts of "The China Syndrome", dramatically and politically, were derived by the portrayal of impending disaster. By contrast, there are no disasters in the month-long period covered in the story of "Promised Land" - no industrial accidents, explosions, cancer clusters, or foul water. Because the movie explores the leasing rather than the development phase of a shale gas play, there is in fact no fracking, and only superficial treatment given to the process itself in a way that invites suspicion. The potential for fracking raises fears, but the practice ends up being irrelevant to the outcome of the film. There is little if any moralizing and no clear rallying point to galvanize public opinion among audiences.

If "Promised Land" makes a point, it's that the industry employs questionable practices to gain control of the land, and residents have a duty to themselves and to their neighbors to be informed and engaged.

So how will audiences react to the movie? "Promised Land" is sure to provoke an outcry among the pro-drilling faithful. The industry seems to be preparing to go into full-on attack mode based on reaction to the trailer, but I doubt that will amount to much as there is little about the factual presentation in the movie to be challenged. In this regard, "Promised Land" is unlike Gasland, the 2010 documentary by Josh Fox that challenges the industry on tangible aspects of policy and science and consequentially became a natural target for rebuttal.

"Promised Land" will raise awareness of the types of issues landowners and communities face in attempting to manage or ban shale gas development. But I will be surprised if it moves the needle in the broader debate over the environmental and health impacts of fracking, any more than "The Da Vinci Code" spurred meaningful debate or influenced public opinion over the morality of the Catholic Church. For anti-drilling activists who are expecting a searing condemnation of shale gas development, "Promised Land" will fall short of expectations. But I also expect that it will be received with general favor by this group. Conversely, the movie is bound to draw fire from the faction of shale gas boosters who get cross when the industry is portrayed in anything other than a positive light. As for the movie's main market, mainstream audiences -- I suspect they will see it as a good story about small town values.

Cross-posted from Tom Wilber's blog, Shale Gas Review.