Director: Phelim McAleer
A nonfiction film about hydraulic fracturing aimed largely at debunking Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated “Gasland,” “FrackNation” is a slice of agitated environmental pushback, an impassioned but slapdash cinematic rebuttal masquerading as a legitimate investigative documentary.
Directed by right-leaning filmmaker Phelim McAleer, who’s previously taken antagonistic runs at Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and environmentalism more generally, “FrackNation” bills itself as an exploration for the truth about the petroleum and natural gas extraction method known widely by its shorthand nickname of fracking. In much the same fashion as Michael Moore in his earlier works, McAleer casts himself as a crusading journalist wading into the fray for answers, speaking truth to power and demanding accountability from bureaucracy.
Certainly “FrackNation” is interesting and valuable for the voice it lends to residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania (one of the chief settings of “Gasland”), who don’t feel any threat to their drinking water or health from mining. It shows, quite capably, the difference of opinion in this town. The problem is that McAleer fancies those espousing environmental concerns as “green extremists,” and by and large treats the fact that both local and national opinions of support for fracking exist as disproving evidence that anyone could have any issues with water potability or other health problems caused by fracking.
The movie makes the spurious leap of logic that the fact that there are some examples of methane present in drinking water dating back many decades as proof that no drinking water is so contaminated by fracking, and takes as gospel the word of mining companies in regard to the inviolability of their methods. “FrackNation” addresses the proprietary (read: secret) chemical additives pumped into the ground in massive amounts during fracking only by having a scientist say that the same thing could be true about coffee (!), and it does not address at all the crucially important issue of the storage and disposal of waste water run-off.
“FrackNation” is emblematic of some of the worst aspects of lazy social-activist filmmaking, both right and left (see also: “Top Priority: The Terror Within,” a documentary about Department of Homeland Security whistleblower Julia Davis), in that it throws out a bunch of tidbits of information and theories about adversaries’ motivations without much regard to a cogent macro argument. In McAleer’s case, this includes everything from a sourcing allegation about a specific insert shot in “Gasland” and a weak character assassination on a public official with adjudicating authority on a fracking bill to the assertion that American environmentalists are perhaps somehow in league with a Russian energy mafia determined to monopolize the future of natural gas shale drilling.
Most problematically, however, “FrackNation” peddles a false narrative. In striking minor nativist chords about how the generations-old livelihoods of rural Americans are at risk by environmental activists, McAleer completely ignores the many other difficult external economic realities facing small, family-owned farms being swallowed up by conglomerates. If a farmer absolutely requires the additional income of leasing his land for natural gas drilling in order to sustain his business, is the primary threat to that way of life those who seek transparency, tighter regulation and/or, yes, even a ban of hydraulic fracturing?
“FrackNation” is not a totally hackish work, but it does start from a bogus and willfully cordoned off point-of-view, and exhibits a desire to grind axes more than uncover truth. In painting environmentalists and anti-fracking activists with a single brush, and additionally promulgating the rather ludicrous claim that Big Media — that familiar right-wing boogeyman — has peddled fear-mongering about fracking, the movie wraps itself in a cloak of besieged indignity, content to scream “Fair and Balanced!” rather than engage in a more honest exchange of ideas.
NOTE: “FrackNation” opens this week in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7. For more information about the movie, visit www.FrackNation.com.
Written by: Brent Simon