“Promised Land” — Promises What, Exactly?

Even if I wasn’t worried about oil companies trying to buy fracking rights on my family’s land, I would be interested in seeing Promised Land, a 2012 movie by/with Matt Damon. So I watched it, a little a year over it came out, far away from the family property.

My ‘bias’ if you will is clear: I’m decidedly anti-fracking. Theoretically, I think I should be embracing this movie, since the anti-fracking people ‘win’ in the end. (Oh yeah–SPOILER ALERT.)

Although the movie ends on a high point for the ‘against fracking’ side of the debate, the movie has two major flaws (and many other minor ones).

First, it tries to use a façade of inter-personal conflict between Matt Damon’s and John Krasinski’s characters (whoever they are) to make the movie appealing to a mass-market audience, but in doing so the movie fails to really put fracking at the forefront of the film. It’s more about who will win–it often devolves into just another head-butt competition between two males trying to get the girl and/or town on his side. I’m sort of sick of that plot line, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what’s actually going on in the real world. I worry that in making fracking seem like a me-against-you issue in the film, the film perpetuates the notion that fracking is about sides (environmentalists or gas companies) winning or losing.

It’s not. It’s really a question of risk assessment and prioritization of resources. Personally, I’m against fracking because not only is the risk to drinking water high and dangerous, but also because it is an extremely short-term solution to a permanent problem: energy. We need energy, not necessarily natural gas. Resources–human resources like engineering skills and economic incentives, like tax breaks–should go towards energy solutions that have promise for the future. Not the 20-years-future, but the 200-years-future, the infinity and beyond that kids my generation dreamed about watching Toy Story.

Anyway.

The second big flaw in this film is that, while the motivation sphere of the gas company is extremely clear–MONEY–the alternative sphere of values is not. Let me put this another way: throughout the film, Matt Damon’s character (who works for the gas company) seems to genuinely believe that money is the solution to the problems of the small town he is trying to buy up. Money is on his side. There are a lot of specific numbers thrown out about how much the gas company will make, how much each landowner will make, etc. Matt Damon’s character gets into a bar fight because he (to paraphrase) “just can’t understand why everyone in the town doesn’t care about money.”

The movie does not specify which small town Damon & his sidekick Just-a-Job visit, but it’s no wonder they leave that to the imagination: money is a really serious motivator, not just for the one or two idiots in this unnamed small town, but for everyone–including a lot of real people in real small towns. Humans are hardwired to make decisions that are fairly short-term in nature. We can think a little farther in the future than, say, dogs, maybe (we can save up to buy something later), but we don’t think in terms of centuries or millennia.

Americans, I think, also have a rather abbreviated sense of history, because our own country’s history is so short. For perspective, I went running the other day under a bridge that dates back to Roman times. That bridge could have been built well over one thousand years ago! By contrast, America was “built” within the past few hundred years; the West particularly still has something of a new penny shine. Since our country has only been around a little over two hundred years, it’s no surprise that 20 years–or 25, or 50–still seems like a relatively long period of time. If we think that an energy source will last for 20-50 years, that feels like, somehow, “enough.”

Fracking doesn’t make sense for economic reasons, not “just” environmental ones. If you make $2,000 for rights on an acre of land and the ground water becomes toxic, suddenly not only are you polluting and doing a naughty when it comes to the wild animals and livestock who depend on natural water sources, you’re also poisoning yourself out of a home. Further, the value of the home becomes completely depreciated, since no one else can live there either. Finally, you poison yourself, your kids, your community–quite literally. Now the $2,000 per acre you made that was supposed to help send your kid to school or whatever doesn’t matter so much.

It’s theoretically possible that fracking could be accomplished safely–theoretically. But that, like every other factual point about fracking, wasn’t really discussed in the movie. The focus was on human relationships. This makes sense for a film, particularly one that is hitting mainstream theaters. However, the human relationships fail to illuminate the real issue in such a way as to even make it seem real. There is a great scene where an older man in the community speaks up against fracking early on in the film, but even this character later devolves into a nostalgic type, a cliché of a grandfather espousing the values that I think a lot of Hollywood directors think country people still hold dear.

But those values–a sense of place, a sense of ownership of the land that comes with a deep sense of responsibility, a vision of the world that empathizes with nature and the future–are not well-articulated in the film. Instead, Damon (as director) relies on heavy-handed symbols like a garden planted by a schoolteacher to teach her children to “care for things.” He makes clear that money is associated with the bad guy, but even that is a garbled message.

For many people, if not Matt Damon, money is actually in very short supply. It totally makes sense that poor people would want money–yet this film presents that set of motivations as being completely ridiculous. As much as I support the notion that money isn’t everything, if you’re actually struggling to pay bills and actually not able to adequately feed your children, then you know what? Money is everything.

Until you can’t drink the water.

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1 comment
  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this movie. When I watched it, I was impressed by how the male characters were portrayed: instead of being vulgar, aggressive, and in extreme conflict, they were civil. I was so impressed, I missed noticing that the movie was, to me, about civil disagreement, not real fracking dangers or alternatives for the town.

    However, I was sorely disappointed that the “hippie” anti-fracker did such an outrageous exhibit by lighting the “farm” on fire. Over the top! I didn’t like being portrayed as such a nut.

    I also liked the movie because the bad guy was a fracking corporation. Who among us can’t love that when fracking is breathing down our necks?

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