Matt Damon’s Latest Film Simplifies a Complex Political Issue

John Hanlon

1/5/2013 8:41:00 PM - John Hanlon

Matt Damon’s latest film “Promised Land” arrived in theaters nationwide yesterday with a focus on the controversial issue of fracking. Written by Matt Damon (who won an Oscar for co-writing “Good Will Hunting”) and John Krasinski (“The Office),” the story focuses on a small community that is asked to debate the merits of the process when a large corporation arrives in town wanting to buy much of the local land.

In an article from the Wall Street Journal, reporter Daniel Gilbert described -- much more succinctly than the film does -- what the process of fracking entails. He noted that “Fracking involves blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into a well to break up shale and allow oil and gas to flow out.”

The community that “Promised Land” is set in is suffering financially and tempted by the thought of having millions of dollars poured into the region. Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman who tries to convince the locals to sell the land to his company, Global. When a local politician hosts a discussion of the subject in the high school gym, though, Butler spots trouble right away when a teacher (played by Hal Holbrook) interrupts the forum to question the environmental impact that fracking would have in the area. Soon enough, a charismatic environmentalist named Dustin Noble (Karsinski) arrives in town and tries to get the locals to reject Global.

The movie, focusing on the controversial subject, has inevitably received criticism from those on the Right and praise from some on the Left. But it’s not the movie’s political leanings that hold it back. It’s the simplicity in which the writers evaluate the subject.

Superficially, the movie seeks to argue that fracking can be both beneficial and detrimental. Butler argues that it will help the community because it will bring in more money to the individuals who sell their land. Noble argues that fracking will destroy the community and even grossly suggests -- to a group of young students, no less -- that fracking could cause the whole community to burst into flame.

When you think about the real substance of the film, though, its ideology is clear. Like many “evil corporations ,” the fracking company in “Land” has a cold and hardened name: Global. As opposed to the small-town farmers depicted in the movie, the company has arrived in town to take over the community without any respect to its traditions or values. The character’s names also lack much subtlety. Butler is, of course, the character who does the corporation’s chores for them. He gets the locals to sign their land away, working for a company that he seemingly knows little about. (At one point, he even questions some of the damning evidence against his company, noting that if the evidence was true, he would have already heard about it already). On the other hand, the proud environmentalist is named Noble.

So whom would you trust? A Butler who works for a corporation -- or a Noble who loves the environment and loves spending time with regular people?

It should be noted that the story offers some twists that seek to offer more complexity to the main characters. Those twists, however, fail to take the story to a higher level. Instead, they just show how evil -- and ruthless -- the corporation really is. From the beginning of the film, the deck is stacked in favor of the environmental forces. By the end, the story reveals that much of the debate about fracking only existed because the corporation wanted it to exist.

Of course, the movie argues that Global is evil. It’s a corporation that exists solely to make money. And as Butler argues, the townspeople should agree to its requests because they too can be greedy capitalists. In one scene, he argues that the money that the townspeople receive will be “screw you money” (although Butler doesn’t use the word “screw”). But few arguments are offered about the benefits of fracking and why many consider it a viable energy source.

In other words, “Promised Land” takes a complex issue -- worthy of a vigorous and important debate about energy independence -- and simplifies it, leaving the viewer with a blatantly one-sided account of the issue.