ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — The new movie “Promised Land” digs into the fierce national debate over fracking, the technique that’s generated a boom in U.S. natural gas production while also stoking controversy over its possible impact on the environment and human health.
Written by and starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski, the film comes at an opportune time for a big-screen exploration of the issues surrounding the shale gas revolution, with cheap natural gas transforming the nation’s energy landscape and “fracking” now a household word.
But viewers shouldn’t necessarily expect a realistic treatment of drilling and fracking. It’s not that kind of film.
EDITOR’S NOTE — The author, Michael Rubinkam, covers the fracking industry in Pennsylvania for The Associated Press. With “Promised Land” opening nationwide on Friday, he offers this view from the ground.
Lending an air of authenticity, the movie was shot in Pennsylvania, where thousands of wells have been drilled and fracked in recent years as industry heavyweights pull huge volumes of gas from the sprawling Marcellus Shale, a rock formation deep below the surface of the earth.
But “Promised Land” spends little time explaining how energy companies actually go about pulling natural gas out of the ground, and what little explanation the movie does provide is simply not very accurate.
The Focus Features release instead concentrates on another aspect of the drilling boom — the battle for hearts and minds as gas companies seek to lease land for drilling while environmentalists warn of the perils of punching a bunch of holes in the ground. Bewildered landowners, meanwhile, are left to sort out the competing claims and counter-claims.
It’s potentially fertile territory. In real life, drilling companies injected millions of dollars into moribund local economies, transforming sleepy villages in Pennsylvania and other states into boom towns almost overnight. But the industry also sowed division, pitting neighbor against neighbor as some residents complained of ruined water wells and other environmental degradation. Many others — a majority, judging by recent public opinion surveys — heralded the prosperity that drilling creates and the abundant homegrown energy it produces.
Even here, though, the movie seeks to entertain more than enlighten, with an implausible plot twist undermining what could have been a realistic portrayal of life as it is really lived in the gas fields.
“Promised Land” follows Steve Butler (Damon), a gas company salesman who shows up in an economically struggling small town in Pennsylvania that happens to sit atop a vast reserve of gas. His task: To get residents to sign on the dotted line, promising them they’ll become instant millionaires once the gas starts flowing from the shale underneath their land. Standing in his way is Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmental activist determined to convince townsfolk they don’t want what the driller is selling.
Damon’s character repeatedly points out that drilling has brought new life to struggling towns, calls U.S. reliance on foreign sources of energy “insane,” and defends fracking as a technology with a proven track record of safety. And he seems to believe it himself, at least initially.
But the film leaves little doubt as to where its sympathies lie.
“Nobody’s going to be disingenuous here. If you were expecting a pro-fracking movie from Matt Damon, you were probably living in an alternate universe,” Focus Features CEO James Schamus said with a laugh.
But he insisted that “Promised Land” ultimately is not a movie about a highly technical process in which drillers use water, sand and chemicals to break apart gas-bearing shale rock — and it should not be judged by that standard.
“The filmmakers didn’t necessarily set out to make, nor did they make, some kind of civics lesson or propaganda movie about fracking,” Schamus said.
Rather, he said, the movie is a Frank Capra-style yarn about “working-class identity, about aspiration, about money and what it does to you,” with fracking as the vehicle that propels the story and a healthy dose of corporate villainy.
Krasinski says he and Damon tried to avoid too much of a political message. “We really wanted to tell a story about community, about these small towns that are going through very real situations right now, especially with the economic situation as it is,” he told the AP.
Yet industry groups and environmental activists alike see “Promised Land” very much as a message film about the perils of the gas boom, and are reacting accordingly.
Drillers — who mounted a furious rebuttal of “Gasland,” the 2010 award-winning, anti-drilling HBO documentary — began pushing back against “Promised Land” months ago while simultaneously noting that it is indeed a work of fiction.
“We’re taking it seriously, obviously, and we’ll be ready to engage folks who may have questions about the development process as a result of the film. But I’m not sure anyone’s losing a lot of sleep over it at this point,” emailed Chris Tucker of Energy In Depth, an industry public relations group.
“They may have Matt Damon and Jim from ‘The Office’ on their side, but we’ve got the facts, the science, the consensus of regulators, and a 65-year track record of performance and safety on ours. So we think that’s a pretty fair fight.”
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, plans to run ads in 75 percent of Pennsylvania’s movie theaters, encouraging “Promised Land” audiences to visit a website that it set up earlier this year to answer questions about shale gas.
“It’s difficult to fact-check a work of fiction, so I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that any more than we can fact-check ‘Batman,’ said spokesman Steve Forde. “But certainly shale gas development is generating discussion around dinner tables, it’s an important discussion to have, and that’s the angle we are looking at.”
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are positively giddy over the film’s depiction of an industry they view as dangerous to land, water, air and people. They are planning their own campaign around “Promised Land,” including the distribution of anti-drilling leaflets, postcards and petitions to audiences leaving theaters.
Rebecca Roter, a Pennsylvania activist who has screened the film, said, “This is a precious opportunity to engage America on a national level about where their cheap natural gas energy is coming from and the associated human costs.”
AP writer Ryan Pearson contributed to this story from Los Angeles.
More Related Stories
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
- Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive
- Morgan Freeman sleeps during televised interview
- J.J. Abrams reveals deleted shower scene with Benedict Cumberbatch
- Is the anti-gay backlash on?
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
- The camp-free "Behind the Candelabra"
- Justin Bieber will destroy you if you live-tweet his parties
- Marc Maron on Twitter feud with Michael Ian Black: "We have an understanding"
- "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis to jury: "You should be euthanized"
- Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal music video
- Actually, Beyoncé is a feminist
- Marc Maron and Michael Ian Black's epic Twitter battle
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11