Matt Damon's new anti-fracking film is called "Promised Land," but it doesn't look as if the film will ever get there. In fact, Damon's revised script seems to be wandering in the desert with hopes of receiving manna from Oscar-heaven fading.
"Promised Land" tells the story of one man caught between his hometown values and his job working for the oil and gas industry. The subtext is the ongoing political battle over fracking, i.e. hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting gas from shale which has led to a boom in gas production around the country.
Damon and John Krasinski (Jim from "The Office") co-wrote the script which, apparently, was set to show how the oil industry swoops in on unsuspecting small towns, steals their resources and leaves behind an ecological nightmare. Krasinski would portray a local who becomes an anti-fracking activist and Damon's character would be forced to choose which side to be on.
It's good material for drama, at least it must have seemed that way when they started writing, but since then things have changed out in the real world. In 2011-2012, both the EPA and the Pennsylvania equivalent looked into claims that fracking had contaminated ground water in Dimock, Pa. Dimock is the actual town on which the film is loosely based.
While the EPA did find some naturally occurring contaminants, after sampling wells providing water to 64 homes it concluded, "there are not levels of contaminants present that would require additional action by the Agency." Obviously if there's no threat to the environment, there's no villain and that creates a problem for a film that relies on one.
Phelim McAleer, the producer of a fracking documentary called "Frack Nation" (full disclosure: I made a small personal donation to production of his film), writes that once the narrative about evil oil companies contaminating ground water evaporated, Damon and Krasinski were forced to do a quick rewrite:
"In the revised script, Damon exposes Krasinski as a fraud — only to realize that Krasinski’s character is working deep undercover for the oil industry to smear fracking opponents."
Got it? The oil and gas industry now has undercover operatives posing as green activists whose only goal is to embarrass themselves and thereby discredit the anti-fracking cause. It's a clever way to ignore the more extravagant (and false) claims of real anti-fracking activists, the ones which probably got Damon's attention in the first place.
Maybe it will work as a story. Damon is a good actor, and he does have an Oscar for screenwriting (Good Will Hunting). The trailer for the film is dark and seems to have been graded toward green in a sort of faux-gritty style reminiscent of "The Matrix." That's appropriate since, at the end of the day, this movie is going to be about as realistic as Neo battling Agent Smith.
Nothing wrong with indulging in a good conspiracy theory, but it would be a mistake to take it too seriously.