Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Promised Land [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Michael Phillips (2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDB listing
CNS/USCCB review
Michael Phillips' review

Promised Land (directed by Gus Van Sant, screenplay by John Krasinski and Matt Damon, story by Dave Eggers) is a message movie about the controversy surrounding the relatively new natural gas extraction technique called "fracking."  On the positive side, fracking opens up a potentially game changing supply of natural gas in the United States (enough to make our country energy independent for the first time in generations).  On the negative side, the technology has been associated with the occasional poisoning of underground water supplies and even if the risk to the nation's underground water supplies proved relatively small or otherwise managable, natural gas remains a fossil fuel and depending on the true seriousness of the threat of global warming due to the world's use of fossil fuels, the development of this new source of energy could exacerbate environmental problems.

From what I've written thusfar, and from my previous writings on my blog, Readers here would not find it hard to discern that my natural sympathies would tend toward a "natural conservatism," that is, "if you don't really know the danger of something, then you don't do it ..."  I would add however that an IMHO under-discussed aspect of the whole "Fossil Fuel" / "Global Warming" controversy has been the relative poverty of Europe with regards to fossil fuel resources and their relative abundance, if not in terms of oil, then certainly in terms of coal and natural gas in the United States.  To put it simply, Europe (taken together an economic powerhouse of the scale of the United States) loses "little" by "going green," while the United States stands to forfeit an enormous economic advantage that it would otherwise have over Europe in the coming century if forgoes developing these resources.  Now it may well be that the threat of global warming is such that for the sake of the future of the whole planet (including the United States) these coal and natural gas resources would have to remain undeveloped.  Still, it should at least be admitted in public discussion that the United States would be sacrificing "quite a bit" for the sake of the planet's welfare (and the presently poorer nations of the world even more), while Europe would actually be sacrificing "relatively little."

Be all this as it may, this film, IMHO, does a fairly good job in presenting the various aspects of the current fracking debate.  Matt Damon's character, Steve Butler a representative of a natural gas firm called Global Crosspower Solutions sent to a rural Pennsylvania farming community to get local residents to agree to let the firm use their land to extract the shale gas found miles below their properties in return for royalties, is  emphatically not evil.  Butler introduces himself in the film as someone who himself grew-up on the farm, in his case in rural Iowa, and one who understood the importance of "industry" to supplement farm income.  He tells the story of the devastating impact that the closure of a Caterpillar tractor factory had on his hometown's local economy.   As such, he tells his bosses that he's been successful in talking farm residents to sign contracts for the drilling rights on their land because he understood their realities.  Steve Butler's partner Sue Thomason (played by Frances McDormand) is perhaps more mercenary/professional about the matter of talking to the residents, but even her pitch talks to the local residents about their hopes, needs and realities.

All goes relatively swimmingly, except for an early and relatively amateurish attempt by the local mayor to shake down Steve Butler and the company that he represents for some extra and presumably personal cash.  However, when what up until that point was expected to be a perfunctory "town meeting" goes unexpectedly awry -- a grandfatherly high school science teacher named Frank Yates (played by Hal Holbrook) who's done some reading-up on fracking on the internet asks some pointed questions -- and the mayor is forced to adjourn the meeting with a promise that the town be able to vote on the matter of bringing Global into town to drill for the natural gas, Steve and Sue, as well as their bosses at Global's office get nervous.  Things seem to get shakier when an outside environmentalist  named Dustin Noble (played by John Krasinski) roles into town a few days later after hearing of the stand that some of the residents had taken at the town meeting, promising to help organize the town's residents against falsehoods and half-truths being pitched by Global's representatives, Steve and Sue.  The rest of the movie unspools from there ... Metaphorically the battle between Steve and Dustin becomes also over the affections of a younger grade-school teacher named Alice (played by Rosemarie Dewitt).

It all plays out IMHO quite well.  The film does come from generally more Liberal Hollywood rather than from more Darwinian Wall Street/K-Street or Texas, so most Readers here could probably guess how it ends up.  Still the complexities of the questions involved (and I'm not talking about the science here but rather of a clash of competing values) is IMHO presented very well.  The "deciders" (to take a term from the GW Bush years) are truly regular folks, who've had farms in their families for generations, who do understand that there would naturally be some risks involved with the fracking technology, but could also use the money. 

So honestly folks, very good job, very good job!

Finally, parents, the only reason why the film is rated-R is from occasional use of some rough language.  There is no sex/nudity or violence in this film to speak of.  All in all, it's a quite gentle, arguably "pastoral" film.

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