It was only a matter of time before someone made a feature movie about fracking. Promised Land is billed as an anti-fracking movie, a movie about the tough choices rural places have to make, and the role of big business in the country’s new energy frontiers.
The movie has been generally praised by environmentalists, and panned by the industry. And it’s introduced a wider audience to the contentious debate surrounding fracking. The natural gas industry and its advocates have called out the filmmakers (Co-writers Matt Damon and John Krasinski, director Gus Van Sant, from a story by Dave Eggers) for playing fast and loose with the facts. Indeed, the film—intentionally, it would seem—changes around different facts to amp up the narrative tension and make the plot flow.
The drawback is in doing so, the screenwriters have created scenarios that would never happen in real life. Like, never. Hollywood does this, of course. Yet Damon, Krasinski et al. would have done better to pay closer attention to the specifics of what’s happened in Pennsylvania in the last five years, because what’s happened has been, well, dramatic.
Fortunes have been made, towns have been transformed, people have lost their water, animals have died, and fingers have pointed at the new rigs in town. A whole new industry has been conjured, almost out of nowhere. Vast amounts of the state are under lease to gas companies, who have produced enough gas in Pennsylvania and other places through fracking to radically alter the country’s energy calculus. The companies have also poured money into every facet of the state’s public life, including, yes, its politics. Changing the facts of this transformation to suit a narrative is defensible, but in the case of Promised Land, it makes the movie seem thin. Which is a shame.
THE FRACKING FIGHT BEGINS
There are several things in the movie that would never happen in real life, but a few stand out.
The first is sort of subtle. Damon’s character, Steve Butler, is a land agent trying “sign up” landowners in the fictitious town of McKinley. He’s accompanied by an even-keeled veteran side-kick, Sue Thomason (played by Frances McDormand). Even before a single well is drilled in the town, the town supervisors call a meeting to discuss the prospect of drilling. At the meeting, the town’s resident professorial type, (played by Hal Holbrook), points out that fracking may not be as risk-free as Damon’s company, (“Global”) claims it to be. The town calls for a vote on whether to allow fracking.
This nets the filmmakers instant narrative tension--a necessary ingredient for a feature-length movie. But here’s the thing. This kind of small town vote never happened in Pennsylvania (though, it is happening, to some degree, in New York state). Towns can’t decide this sort of thing. The state legislature does--did. (Some towns have tried to regulate fracking through zoning. Granted, zoning isn’t a terribly sexy topic.) The bigger issue is the public meetings and the public debate didn’t really happen before drilling came to Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania drilling came, then some people had problems with it, and started debating it and trying to limit it.
The drama around fracking really started when the drill rigs pulled into town. The trucks, the disruption, the noise, the flares that lit the night sky, the strange odors, the out-of-towners manning the equipment, the early cries of contamination.
SKIPPING PAST THE DETAILS
We get some of this in the movie, though it’s shoehorned into the script by way of Krasinski’s character, Dustin Noble. Dustin is a fractivist who comes to town toting pictures of dead animals from drilling accidents out West.
Speaking of things that would never happen, Dustin is allowed into an elementary school classroom to give a demonstration on the dangers of fracking. (The next fractivist invited to make a presentation in a Pennsylvania elementary school may be the first.)
Dustin makes his demonstration in front of a Lego diorama of a farm. He fills a plastic bag with water and sand, and bottles of chemicals. He pokes holes in the bag, causing it to leak all over the Lego farm. The toy cows and goats are showered. Then Krasinski lights the diorama on fire. This is as close to we come to some explanation about why environmentalists are worried about fracking--yet it’s pretty patently false.
With the exception of well-blowouts, which are rare, fracking fluid doesn’t rain down on farms. Used frackwater is a serious environmental issue; virtually anywhere it goes, it’s treated pretty close to toxic. It can leak, it can spill. It can do a lot of things, but it generally doesn’t rain down from the sky, from the top of some frackwater spray gun.
There are plot-driven motives for Dustin doing the display this way, but the lack of fidelity to how fracking works in the real world takes away from the film’s ‘edge’. If you can’t get these details right, then your movie starts to get a little less real. This isn’t to suggest we need a detailed discussion about chemical assays, hydrogeology, or Pennsylvania’s 1984 Oil and Gas Act. But we could use a movie that clearly knows its subject matter, and doesn’t glide over it.
TOWARD A CLEARER PICTURE
The movie does get some things right—Damon delivers several powerful sermons to his potential clients about the stark choices they must make—the chance at millions of dollars in exchange for a well pad on their land, and a non-zero chance that something could go wrong with it.
The movie also portrays the dire state of rural Pennsylvania economics, and the slow decay of the farm economy. “The only reason you’re here," one farmer tells Damon, "is because we’re poor.” Throughout the shale boom, the lure of royalties and signing bonuses was made ever more desirable by the recession, and the steady decline of rural life. Shale was, for many farmers, a lifeline.
There are some other, rather outlandish plot points that we might expect from Hollywood. And some caricatures that stuck out (one local sounds like he’s from Alabama, for some reason). But the real shortcomings were more subtle-- the lack of precision when it comes down to the subject matter. Fracking is the topic, so why not get it right?
Even with its omissions and oversimplifications, the movie is probably worth seeing. The gas industry may not like Promised Land, but it is, mercifully, not really an advocacy movie—there are shades of grey. It’s the first movie made about fracking. Whoever’s making the second one, take note. Make something that holds tightly to the contours of life atop the Marcellus shale. You really can’t make this stuff up.