Friday, December 28, 2012

Promised Land - Fracking in a Fictional Film and More

The Promised Land in the bible is described as a paradise, a land flowing with milk and honey; the land that holds wonderful promise.

It is in this context that the title of Gus Van Sant’s film, Promised Land is rooted. The rural piece of America where the film takes place appears bucolic, pastoral and the title seems to aptly describe the land. But the title is also ironic.

Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand) work for a giant oil and gas firm, Global Oil which is buying up the drilling rights to farmland in rural America. They are sent to McKinley – a town somewhere in the great American heartland - to secure those rights.

Steve and Sue are not ‘oil and gas’ people they are sales people. Their job is to ‘sell’ farmers on the idea of signing away their drilling rights at the cheapest possible price.

Steve is the ace. He is a hot shot, brought in because he is the best at what he does and there is likely a corporate vice presidency in his future. Sue is no slouch either, she is a work a day mom, for whom this is just a job but one she is good at.

McKinley should be a slam dunk. The pair should be in and out in no time, with the deals done. But things get complicated.

Frank Yates, a local high school teacher, played by the wonderful Hal Holbrook, raises the fracking issue at a town hall meeting. He persuades people that they should take some more time to investigate what dangers might be involved with fracking; is this really a good idea? Suddenly it is not a slam dunk.

Matt Damon co-wrote the screen play with John Krasinski who also plays Dustin Noble in the film. Noble is a slick environmental activist who arrives on the scene to also try to disrupt Steve and Sue’s efforts.

Dave Eggers (Where the Wild Things Are) did the original draft/story and Damon was originally slated to direct. The decision to have Van Sant direct instead, however, was a good one. It is a good story, with fine performances (particularly, McDormand) and Van Sant’s deft hand weaves it all together.

Van Sant uses aerial shots throughout the film. He shows us this bucolic landscape . Everything is lush and green – indeed it does look like the Promised Land. It’s a subtle contrast to what we don’t see, what is not there yet but is likely to come: industrial well heads populating the pastures and fields; heavy truck traffic on the peaceful back roads; farm ponds polluted or depleted of water because of the fracking; dying livestock.

The issue of fracking (hydraulic fracturing ‘fracking’ is a method being used to drill for natural gas and other petroleum products) is very controversial. It involves pumping liquids, including chemicals, into the earth, fracturing the rock and allowing the gas to flow to the surface. It is particularly controversial in Colorado because it is becoming very widespread both on the western slope and the northern Front Range. In fact Steve even mentions Rifle, Colorado at one point in the film.

Fracking is central to the story but the film is much more than an ‘anti-fracking movie’. The film works because it doesn’t feel like a diatribe. It deals with a serious subject but with humor and a light touch (thank you, Van Sant, Damon and Krasinski). It works because the characters are real people, people we know; people with wants and needs and desires and complications; people just like us. It also works because the performances are so good.

There is an underlying theme as well: The loss of the American dream; the loss of jobs and the declining state of the middle class; the fear and vulnerability that they feel and how that fear and vulnerability can be exploited by a big corporation.

Part of the reason that Steve and Sue expect to be so successful in McKinley is because the town has been so hard hit by the economic decline of the last few years. The people are desperate and they will likely jump at any offer – indeed some do. It is tough to stand on principle or some family-farm tradition when you are in danger of losing that farm or not being able to feed your kids.

Steve is an ‘Ace’ – he could sell the proverbial ice cubes to Eskimos –he gets the deal done and at a lower cost than anyone else – “How do you do that?” He is asked. And that is why Global wants him to go to McKinley, because it is all about the deal and the money, not the people or the land, just the money.

Symbolically, in the opening scene, Steve is having dinner with one of the Global Oil corporate executives to discuss the McKinley project. It is a very nice dinner, an expensive dinner. Toward the end of the discussion the executive insists on ordering another bottle of wine, another bottle of Chateau Margaux. The message is clear, Global has lots of money and expects to make more and Steve can be a part of that at the top, not just out on the road. Money will make anything happen. The deal and the money are the only things that count.

Damon brings a wonderful likability to the character. You can’t help but like Steve even if you don’t like what he is doing. That likability and charm are at the heart of Steve’s success as a salesman. They also attract an elementary school teacher, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) who in turn attracts Steve. Romance seems ready to bloom and it also helps complicate Steve and Sue’s stay in McKinley.

Steve and Sue compete with Dustin Noble for the hearts and minds of the citizenry and then an unexpected turn of events has serious fallout for Steve that raise emotional questions for him.

As actor and co-writer Krasinski says: “It’s an emotional story about what happens when real people and real money collide, and the surprising ways people respond when momentous decisions come their way,”

It is a very satisfying film.

Promised Land opens today, Friday December 28th at Denver Pavilions.

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