(AP) Hollywood faces fracking in ‘Promised Land’
By MICHAEL RUBINKAM
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 counterclaims.
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 boomtowns 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Environmentalists, meantime, 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.