Title: Promised Land

Focus Features

Director: Gus Van Sant

Screenwriter: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, story by Dave Eggers

Cast: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy

Screened at: Broadway, NYC, 11/12/12

Opens: December 28, 2012

In a wholly accessible movie, a muckraking film as entertaining as Stephen Soderbergh’s “Erin Brockovich,” “Promised Land” takes on Big Business’ manipulation of poor people in its efforts to make vast profits. The company called Global which is engaged in hydraulic fracturing, known commonly as fracking, has sent two sales agents to a rural area (filmed in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania) to convince the locals to agree to drilling on their land. In addition to signups by individual farmers, the town requires a majority vote of its citizens to approve. Crack sales agents Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) don flannel shirts to mix and mingle with the folks, convincing many that they will be rich once the vote is affirmative and their signatures are on a document. Of course we in the audience are hip: we know that this is nothing more than corporate bluster and that severe damage could result if Global is allowed to push its chemicals into the soil. What would result, presumably in director Gus Van Sant’s view and in the opinions of scripters Matt Damon and John Krasinski who adapted Dave Eggers’ story, is that the chemicals would pollute the water thereby killing the farm animals, polluting the air, and ultimately resulting in an epidemic of cancer.

The arguments for and against fracking are numerous: there is even a group of residents from Armstrong County in Pennsylvania where photography took place, that protest the film, accusing the film studios who aimed their cameras in their backyards that the movie would be fair to the drillers. Now they’re mighty annoyed: in a surprising bit of irony, the locals who support the drilling are accusing the film companies of bamboozling them.

The argument might pit a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal against a magazine like Nation, the former being a conservative medium while the latter is on the left. In fact in the Wall St. Journal of November 12th of this year, “The Fracker’s Guide to a Greener World” by Richard Muller and Mitch Daniels, the authors hold that with greenhouse gas emissions growing rapidly in the developing world, the only realistic alternative is natural gas. “One of the factors slowing the world-wide switch to natural gas is shortsighted opposition from some environmentalists in the U.S., Europe and beyond. They argue that fracking may pollute local water supplies and leak the powerful greenhouse gas methane.” The writers agree that some “limited, local pollution” has occurred, but this is caused by “the wildcatting behavior of the rapidly growing industry.”

Who’s right? That’s what makes politics an interesting game, though to the farmers ostensibly being conned by Steve and Sue (according to the filmmakers) will have to stand up for their rights and refuse the offer of cash even though their small farms are on the way out anyway. To posit the argument against fracking, a highly likable Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) acts as a roving environmentalist plastering signs about the town condemning the fracking, even accepting a bribe from Global’s agents and, rather than keeping quiet, using the money to buy more signs opposing the offers by Big Gas.

Since this is a narrative film and(thankfully) not a documentary with talking heads interviews, we get some romance, with pretty schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) flirting with both Steve Butler (who insists that he is “not a bad man”) and with Dustin Noble who believes that Steve is the devil. Hal Holbrook takes on the role of Frank Yates, a science teacher in the local high school who is actually a retired engineer, an MIT graduate, who is teaching the young ‘uns for fun. Yates opposes the proposed fracking, standing up at a town meeting to make his points to the attendees, much to the chagrin of the sales duo.

Frances McDormand is responsible for just about all of the humor, wisecracking her way through the story. We come away with a pretty fair view of these salt-of-the-earth people, some convinced that they will become millionaires from what is right under the land that they own while others are not at all convinced. Matt Damon, a favorite of Gus Van Sant, does—needless to say—a fine job as a man who is convinced that he’s a good guy, enriching farmers who could use the money, but wondering whether he should do the right thing. A girl selling lemonade for twenty-five cents a glass motivates his future actions, with a terrific twist that you might see coming if you’re fully aware of the machinations of Corporate America.

Rated R. 105 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+

Acting – B+

Technical – B+

Overall – B+

Promised Land

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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