January 7, 2013

Matt Damon's "Promised Land": The Good, Bad, and Misrepresented

I encourage everyone to see Promised Land and to bring your family, friends, and these postcards addressed to President Obama to hand out to movie goers. Also, Sierra Club has a very handy discussion guide for you to use after you leave the theater.

Matt Damon's new flick, Promised Land, is a delightful melodrama of Hollywood proportions set in a fictional, southwest Pennsylvania farming town called McKinley. Having grown up in a small, rural town in Pennsylvania and spent my share of time working in fields, I was impressed with the cinematography that presents McKinley as I've experienced my life exploring twisting rural roads, living at a slower pace, and having small businesses named after the folks who run them. I believed the exposition, though no one in the local dive bar is smoking despite ashtrays present at every table.

Matt Damon's character is a gas industry land man who is deployed to McKinley by his billion-dollar company, Global Crosspower Solutions, to sign leases with local residents to allow shale gas drilling on their land. Shale drilling employs a process commonly called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", where silica sand, chemicals, and millions of gallons of water are blasted down a well bore to break up deep rock layers to release methane and other gases to the surface. Ultimately, I was disappointed that few technical facts or images of drilling were presented in the film, despite the set location in and around Armstrong County where well pads, pipelines, processing plants, compressor stations, and access roads scar the landscape.

Knowing the Tennessee Pipeline is about to cut and dredge its way through my hometown across the Delaware River, bisecting gas leased land and eminent domained properties, this plot hit home for me. Ironically, Promised Land State Park here in Pike County has a hunting camp in the middle that's leased to Chesapeake Energy. If the Delaware River basin, drinking water for 15 million people, is finally opened to drilling and if the state park was leased by the governor, over 3,000 acres would be opened for development near my childhood home. I can't fathom the kind of disrespect for our rural heritage the gas industry landman, not unlike Damon's character, must have, who looked at a place like that and pictured a future chemical-laden industrial site.

Here in northeast PA the industry has tried to improve its community relations by sending out glossy mailers, holding their own picnics, sponsoring the Harford Fair, the Scranton St. Patrick's Day Parade, and various cultural events in a similar way Global sponsors McKinley's little league team and town fair in the film. Corrupt officials abound and gas workers express woes about missing their families at home in Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. The environmentalist depicted in the film very much reminded me of myself except I usually sing "Thunder Road" instead of "Dancing in the Dark" at kareoke.

In many ways, Promised Land is dead on representative of what we're facing here in Pennsylvania.

However, I'd like to vary this review from many I've read by environmentalists with some major critiques.

The first, and my biggest problem with Promised Land, is the depiction of Pennsylvania women in the film as disempowered observers in the debate over the town's vote to ban drilling.

In the film, Alice, the schoolteacher played by actress Rosemarie DeWitt, doesn't verbally express her opinion of the drilling even once and is simply depicted as a cautious romantic squeeze for Matt Damon and John Krasinski, the out of town environmentalist, to war over. The waitress at McKinley's local greasy spoon isn't given any lines regarding the controversy and the nameless mother who is approached for a lease by Damon's land agent counterpart, Sue, is bright eyed and silent as she absorbs the industry talking points without a single question or concern.

In 2010, I participated in the initial drive to pass the world's first drilling ban in Pittsburgh that has snowballed into local legislative successes in small towns, states, and even the entire country of France. From the very beginning when we met at the Lincoln Place Elk's Lodge to hear the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund's director, Ben Price, explain his draft ordinance to our group, powerful mothers, grandmothers, and many young women have been the tireless engine of our movement.

City Councilman Doug Shields, who represented the ward, had initially presented the drilling issue at a West Mifflin Elementary School town hall and claimed there was nothing he could do. At the urging of newly engaged mothers, namely Loretta Weir, and with the encouragement from Doug's wife Briget, he attended our Elk's Lodge meeting and was persuaded over beers to introduce the drilling ban to City Council.

At the subsequent public hearing on the ban, woman after woman stood up and testified against drilling within the city limits with well-informed, researched points and were the most vocal "boo's" and mocking laughter as industry suits testified how safe their operations were to the unconvinced audience.

My second objection is the broad representation of the townspeople as unable to organize themselves without Dustin the environmentalist going door to door and rallying them to the cause. In fact, the Pittsburgh ban ordinance was passed completely because of the grassroots efforts of Pittsburgh residents who organized a bar crawl, a march, and rallies at City Hall without the endorsement or staff support of any Big Green environmental organizations, including Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, PennEnvironment, or PennFuture, all of whom still reject banning drilling as a realistic policy.

We sent the industry away, licking its wounds, by talking to our neighbors with our own organization, Marcellus Protest Coalition, and that kind of unfunded, volunteer effort is how our anti-fracking movement is winning battles again and again.

As a Film Studies major in another life, I had some very big problems with the desperate plot twist at the end that is nowhere foreshadowed and is not nearly the worst-case scenario that every screen and dramatic writing professor demands in a work like this. Without giving up the ending, I'll say that Damon and Krasinski, who wrote the film clearly without researching the actual conflicts and resistance in rural PA that have occurred in recent years, wimped out on a truly riveting denouemount, or conclusion, to the story.

If I were to offer a screenwriter's critique, I would have had the drillers move into McKinley and the locals decide to resist them, as has happened throughout our region. I would have delved into the destruction of community relationships like has happened in Dimock, PA among pro- and anti-drilling residents.

In Pennsylvania, a township supervisor in Lycoming County dropped trees and a farmer parked his pickup in the road to block the trucks in Jefferson County from destroying their respective roads, someone blasted a newly installed waste pit liner apart with their shotgun in Indiana County, and civil disobedience has been used to shut down gas infrastructure construction for over 12 days in the case of the Riverdale Mobile Home Park eviction. On a Hollywood scale, the possibilities are endless, but rural Pennsylvanians have already been writing this film with their actions, so there wouldn't be much of a stretch.

Finally, Damon's predictable role reversal in the end could have been a lot more powerful by having him meet with Global's executive team one last time to explain what happened. I feel like abandoning that scene was a lazy way of sending Damon off with a clear head, confident he'd get the girl. In my experience, rural women are a lot more skeptical of gas workers than Alice is.

What's my overall rating of the film? The soundtrack is great. I appreciate that it makes it a lot harder for land agents to operate door to door among families that have seen Promised Land, although it doesn't equip the families with many technical arguments against fracking. I welcome the income the film production brought to the area, although I wonder if any of the box office revenue will be diverted by Damon and Krasinski to support our movement organizing. Most of all, I am glad that the film rejuvenated the national debate about fracking that had stagnated during the elections, even with its somewhat inaccurate presentation.

- Alex Lotorto