Watch: Promised Land

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Article Reviews

Directed by Gus Van Sant (Focus Features, 2013)

The film Promised Land asks the question: Who is the bad guy? Is it the big, greedy company that wants to destroy traditional farming life in pursuit of natural gas? Or is it the environmental movement that would have Pennsylvania farmers and landowners turn down money they desperately need? 

It is a credit to the film’s writers (Matt Damon, John Krasinski, and Dave Eggers) and the nuanced performances of the talented actors (Damon and Krasinski are joined by Frances McDormand and Hal Holbrook) that the issue of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, is given the complicated treatment it deserves. It is true that fracking— blasting millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals into rock in order to extract natural gas far below the surface—has the potential to limit our dependence on coal and oil. But water pollution, earthquakes, and contamination of soil and air are among the drawbacks.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a man from a small town who, as an employee of the big gas company Global Cross Power Solutions, has the job of convincing farmers that it’s in their best interest to sell off their natural gas rights. Butler is sincere.  He’s a good man who believes in what his company is offering.  “I’m selling them the only way they have out,” Butler argues.

Holbrook brings strength and believability to the character Frank Yeats, an intelligent local who reminds Butler that “fracking is far from a perfect process.” Krasinski delivers his usual offbeat, charismatic energy as Dustin Noble, an environmentalist with an incriminating backstory of his own. 

Promised Land explores all the pros and cons of fracking, an issue with gray areas, without anyone clearly wearing the black hats. Certainly a viewer could argue that the film leans toward the anti-fracking camp, but even so, it offers a balanced discussion of what’s really on the table.

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 4, page 42).


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