September 28, 2012 at 8:03 am
A new film starring Matt Damon presents American oil and natural gas producers as money-grubbing villains purportedly poisoning rural American towns. It is therefore of particular note that it is financed in part by the royal family of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.
The creators of Promised Land have gone to absurd lengths to vilify oil and gas companies, as Scribe’s Michael Sandoval noted Wednesday. Since recent events have demonstrated the relative environmental soundness of hydraulic fracturing – a technique for extracting oil and gas from shale formations – Promised Land’s script has been altered to make doom-saying environmentalists the tools of oil companies attempting to discredit legitimate “fracking” concerns.
While left-leaning Hollywood often targets supposed environmental evildoers, Promised Land was also produced “in association with” Image Media Abu Dhabi, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media, according to the preview’s list of credits. A spokesperson with DDA Public Relations, which runs PR for Participant Media, the company that developed the film fund backing Promised Land, confirmed that AD Media is a financier. The company is wholly owned by the government of the UAE.
The UAE, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has a stake in the future of the American fossil fuel industry. Hydraulic fracturing has increased the United States’ domestic supply of crude oil and natural gas in areas such as the Bakken shale formation and has the potential to increase domestic production much more in the foreseeable future. That means more oil on the market, and hence lower prices for a globally traded commodity.
Fracking is boosting the country’s natural gas supply as well. While the market for American natural gas is primarily domestic, the Energy Department recently approved Cheniere Energy’s plan to export about 2.2 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas per day from Louisiana. The Department is considering LNG export applications from seven other companies.
A strong global market presence for American natural gas could also work to the UAE’s disadvantage. The Arab nation ranks seventh worldwide in proven natural gas reserves. For instance, Japan’s energy imports are expected to rise significantly over the next five years. The country is currently a major importer of UAE natural gas. If it decided to import more LNG from the United States to accommodate its increased energy demands, it could deal a blow to the UAE economy.
Another source of competition might come from other industries that use natural gas to manufacture other products. As American gas grows cheaper the United States becomes a more attractive destination for industries that manufacture petroleum-intensive products. The UAE, meanwhile, has invested billions attempting to shore up its own share of the plastics and chemicals markets, both of which rely on petroleum products and are likely to gravitate towards the cheapest sources of those products.
All of this suggests a direct financial interest on the UAE’s part in slowing the development of America’s natural gas industry. Pop culture can be a powerful means to sway public opinion. While Promised Land, like anti-fracking documentary Gasland, appears to inflate the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, it may have an impact on the public’s view of the practice.
Oscar nominations or no, expect this film to be a box-office bust:
Knee-jerk ideology has poisoned the creative wells of two of Hollywood’s more talented stars.
“Promised Land,” an anti-fracking propaganda film dressed up as Oscar-season fare, re-teams “Good Will Hunting” star Matt Damon with director Gus Van Sant. Neither can salvage a story that exists solely to demonize natural gas companies and the process of fracking.
Sure, Van Sant’s camera captures some quaint landscapes, and Damon remains a rigorously engaged actor. But who could push past a story top heavy with silly twists, undernourished subplots and a hero without a clue as to why his enemies hate his handiwork?
What’s most surprising is that you’ll leave the theater knowing little more about the pros and cons of fracking than when you entered.
“Promised Land,” co-financed by forces eager to squash new American-based energy sources, casts Damon as a salesman climbing the corporate ladder at a billion-dollar natural gas firm. Steve is sent to a rural Pennsylvania town, one of many dying in our flailing economy, to secure drilling permit rights for farm land loaded with shale. The company will use the controversial process of fracking to dig deep into the shale deposits to line its corporate coffers and throw much needed cash to the land owners. Steve’s co-worker (Frances McDormand, far too good for such material) is on hand to help seal the deal.
The plan seems assured until a local teacher (Hal Holbrook) and an environmental activist (John Krasinski) start convincing the locals how bad fracking is for the environment.
The film’s script, written by Damon and Krasinsky, lacks courage, brains and logic. Damon’s character is a star businessman, a guy who can put the squeeze on a mayor one minute and then sweet talk the locals to sign any piece of paper in his pocket the next. Yet when confronted with a green-certified fracking critic he practically breaks down and cries like a baby.
Wouldn’t a fracking salesman be up on both the alleged criticisms of his industry as well as the best ways to shred his opponents’ arguments? Not here. And didn’t Steve expect at least some resistance to his proposal? That there Google has plenty of anti-fracking videos even the hayseeds he’s dealing with can peruse.
Things get uglier when Krasinski’s character makes a move on the purty teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) Steve courts by getting drunk and passing out on her couch.
Van Sant and co. aren’t subtle about their intentions with “Promised Land.” The energy company here is depicted as ruthless, its workers spit out the same tired jokes and sales pitches. The locals are given little complexity. Either they’re angry at Steve for potentially ruining their land, eager to spend the money he’s promising to give them or simply pawns swayed by a town fair or emotionally charged poster.
At one point, a banner with the natural gas company logo flutters and falls on Steve’s car windshield as a storm washes away his plans to win the townsfolk over. If only we could decode what the symbolism means.
“Promised Land” leaves us with a twist so hackneyed it should have been laughed out of the first table read. Instead, it arrives to make sure we don’t forget the messages the film has been screaming at us from the opening sequence. Fracking bad. Big business very bad. And movies based on pure ideology, not sturdy storytelling, are even worse.