“Promised Land,” a 2012 film staring Matt Damon, John Kraskinski, and Frances McDormand, focuses on a large corporation attempting to convince a small Pennsylvania town to open up their land to natural gas extraction, or hydraulic fracking.
Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (McDormand) are corporate salespeople tasked with convincing local residents to sell their drilling rights to Global Crosspower Solutions for potentially millions of dollars. Damon’s character, Steve, grew up in a small town that was devastated when the Caterpillar equipment production plant closed, and he fervently believes that he is selling the community its only chance to be economically viable. Through the beginning of the film, everything is going according to plan, and residents are lining up to trade their land for profit.
Then things start to get shaky. At a community meeting, a high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) raises questions about the environmental impact of fracking, and it is decided the issue will be brought to a vote. Soon after, Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an activist from an environmentalist group, challenges Global’s narrative by describing how fracking ruined his family’s farm. The film follows the protagonists as they scramble to convince residents to allow fracking before the critical vote takes place.
“Promised Land” portrays both sides of the fracking debate without giving a clear moral answer. A number of the farmers greet Steve and Sue with, “What took you so long?” and are eager to sign the papers. They see this money as a way to finance their children’s educations and to move forward with the changing times. However, after Dustin, the activist, shows pictures of dead cows and explains the threat of water contamination, many farmers become concerned about the long-term health of their land. Steve and Sue truly believe that they are doing the right thing; Steve in particular wants the community to know that he is a “good guy” who is telling the truth based on his personal experiences with rural unemployment. Dustin plays the role of a David, the small, under-funded, environmentalist that wants to save this community from the greed of a corporate Goliath.
The film is not a documentary, and does not pretend to be. However, it could have benefited from some hard-hitting documentary tactics. Dustin, the environmentalist, doesn’t display much of an argument besides his personal charisma and a picture of a few dead cows in a field. On the whole, “Promised Land” doesn’t emphasize scientific or economic facts about the positive or negative impacts of fracking. The focus of the film is more on the development of the characters and their personal motivations rather than the larger issues of fracking, rural economies, energy demand, the complexity of solutions, and environmental destruction.
The actors do an excellent job of portraying the characters conflicts and emotions, but the film isn’t quite strong enough to make audiences root for any of the main characters. “Promised Land” could have done better with a more in-depth look into the local residents’ complex of viewpoints and motivations. However, if you are interested in an easily digestible and entertaining look at both sides of the fracking debate, “Promised Land” is worth a watch.