Making a movie with a particular theme is tricky. A good movie needs all the elements of good story-telling: a clear story arc, transformation of the protagonist and conflict (a little romance helps, too). Often, when dealing with serious subject matter, filmmakers stray from the storytelling elements and put too much focus on educating the viewer about the theme.
Let’s face it, when most of us go to the movies we want to see a story about people overcoming adversity and falling in love. If we get educated in the process, hey, bonus.
Promised Land, a new film from Gus van Sant that explores the effect of natural gas drilling with horizontal fracturing on a small town, tells a pretty good story. Steve Butler (Matt Damon), a land man for Global, a fictional oil and gas company, is very successful at persuading rural landowners to sign gas leases. His success lies mainly in the fact that he’s one of them, having been raised in “Small Town, Iowa.” Thinking he’s dealing with yet another small town, he and his partner Sue Thompson (Frances McDormand) arrive in “Small Town, Pennsylvania,” intent on signing 80 percent of the town’s residents into fracking leases. The pair isn’t prepared for the opposition they receive in the form of high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a formidable adversary who has clearly done his homework on the risks associated with the practice. Yates asks the town to vote on whether to allow fracking in the area. The story centers on that vote and how it impacts relationships among the characters.
Van Sant successfully weaves a storyline about life in a small town around the theme of fracking, giving Damon’s character ample room for growth and even throwing in a love story with a teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) and conflict with an out-of-town environmental activist (John Krasinski). For my taste, though, the writers (Damon and Krasinski) get a little overambitious, stuffing many aspects of the fracking controversy into the film’s 106 minutes. Just about every facet of the fracking issue is touched on (although some thought it didn’t go far enough in educating people about the risks) but the film carefully avoids drawing any conclusions about whether or not the town should actually frack (in spite of insistence by industry groups like Energy-in-Depth that it is anti-fracking). According to Damon the film isn’t about politics, but rather American identity:
The last thing we wanted to do was make a polemic or try to preach to anybody about anything. In fact the issue of natural gas came later. You know we really wanted to tell a story about American identity.
The film does that. In fact, what it does particularly well is raise some big issues about how we want our future to look. For a few examples, see the script excerpts below:
Steve Butler, on continuing with fossils fuels vs. cutting energy consumption:
There's no such thing as a neutral position here. If you’re against natural gas, you’re FOR coal and oil. Unless we talk about cutting our consumption. And so far that’s a conversation none of us are willing to have.
And on rural towns doing whatever it takes to survive vs. preserving their way of life:
These people? This town? This life? It’s dying and damn near dead. And you all see it coming! And you just won’t get the hell out of the way.
Frank Yates, on the ability of fracking to change a way of life for people living in small towns:
Now, Gerry started this thing by saying that Natural Gas coming here is life changing... and it is. It’s a clean and efficient resource, but the way we go about getting it is some dirty business.
The ability of natural resource extraction to change people’s lives has become a common theme in films. From Giant to October Sky, audiences have been captivated over and over by stories about how the riches brought by energy extraction are often accompanied by pollution, health problems, injury and even death. I can’t help but compare Promised Land to the 1941 Oscar winner How Green Was My Valley, the story of a Welsh mining community at the turn of the 20th century. The film tells the story of the Morgans, a family of six sons and one daughter, whose lives entwine with the coal company that has taken over their town.
Throughout the film, the family suffers abuses including child labor, wage strikes, injuries and death. By the end of the film, the town has transitioned from pastoral to industrial and is choked with smoke from the mines. Throughout it all, the family endures. Like Promised Land, the film portrays its small town characters as complex people with deep motivations and never belittles or judges them. Like Promised Land, How Green Was My Valley stops far short of condemning coal mining, and in fact, the characters are proud of their abilities as hard working, experienced miners. In 1941, the film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won five, including Best Picture.
These types of stories are necessary and it’s important to remember that they’re fictional . They may bend truths and they may not always be technically accurate, but they give us a snapshot in time of how technological advances impact our lives. As we steadily degrade more and more of our environment in the name of development and economic prosperity, films like Promised Land serve as historical markers. At some point in our inevitable clean energy future, we’ll look back at films like Promised Land that portray our clinging dependence on fossil fuels and unrelenting natural resource exploitation, think about how quaint we were and wonder what we were thinking. That’s a promise I can live with.
There are resources designed to help people living in communities impacted by fracking.
National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) created the Community Fracking Defense Project to “provide legal and policy assistance to towns and local governments seeking added control or protections from hydraulic fracturing in their communities.” Read more about it in this post from colleague Kai Olson-Sawyer.
In addition, there is the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP), “a nonprofit environmental health organization created to assist and support Washington County residents who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities.” Their website provides invaluable resources for those in dire and immediate trouble in the vicinity of active shale extraction.