“Promised Land” is a terrific movie about two gas company salesmen trying to sign up small town farmers to lucrative – but perhaps environmentally damaging – development contracts. Directed by Gus Van Zandt and written by stars John Krasinski and Matt Damon, it’s a simple premise with a social conscience that turns into a twisted tale of corporate intrigue, where (ominous chord) not everything is as it seems.
A story on NPR’s Morning Edition claims that critics love the film while the natural gas industry isn’t so thrilled with it. Well, I don’t work in the energy sector and I had problems with it, too. Though my complaints aren’t cinematic – I actually really liked the movie – they’re political.
These days, it seems that filmmakers who want to make a point are drawn to one of two extremes: the earnest, polemic documentary or the narrative film that twists itself into a pretzel trying not to be earnest and polemic. I don’t love either type of film, but of the two, I think the first is preferable - at least its more honest about its intent. In the case of fracking, a doc like “Gasland” would qualify as the former while “Promised Land” is a prime example of the latter.
It’s clear that Van Zant and company are against the practice of shooting toxic chemicals into the ground to extract natural gas and other fuels. And yet, they’ve gone out of their way to humanize their characters that are selling poor farmers on the idea to avoid painting them as black-hatted villains. In fact, (spoiler alert) they, too, are being lied to (ominous chord again). It’s a rather tortured way of going about making the point.
What happened to movies like “Erin Brockovich” and ”Silkwood” that dealt with issues head-on – movies that kicked ass and took names later? Well, I’ll tell you what happened. And in doing so I’ll defend “Promised Land” and movies like it.
Filmmakers (and smart companies that fund these films, like Participant Media) realized that they had to stop oversimplifying complicated issues and individuals if they wanted their movies to preach to more than the converted. They had to make them more like, well, like mainstream movies. Because they noticed that films like “Gasland” (which is terrific by the way) end up only being seen by people who already agree with its message.
I’m guessing the makers of ”Promised Land” also believe that we live in a more sophisticated time, when Hollywood can no longer simply tell audiences what to think and feel. And that their movie brings up the issue of fracking in an entertaining and thought-provoking way in the hopes that people will a) actually see it and b) further investigate the issue themselves and come to their own conclusions and most importantly c) take some action based on those conclusions.
That’s particularly important, because a lot of the issues that movie-makers are taking on these days are on-going. You could walk out of the theater after seeing “Brockovich” and feel happily filled with self-righteous anger knowing the bad guy had been defeated (though the town of Hinkley is still fighting over ground water contamination). Fracking is still a contentious issue, and feeling mad isn’t enough – people have to get involved to make a difference.
The softening of “the message” can also be blamed on the movie studios themselves – it’s unlikely that Universal or Fox (which distributed “Erin Brockovich” and ”Silkwood” respectively) would touch either movie with a ten-foot pole these days – even though both made money. We can argue whether that’s because they’ve just opted out of making movies with substance at all and/or that, as subsidiaries of megacorpoations themselves, they feel cowed by their owners to avoid such sensitive topics.
There’s also been a kind of strange political shift in this country. There was a time when no one would stand on side of a company poisoning a town’s well-water. Now, it seems, it’s not so simple, especially when we’re talking about oil and gas: What about jobs? What about energy independence? If Erin B. was to take her tube top up to the small towns likely to be affected by the potentially devastating environmental effects of the Keystone XL pipeline, how would she be received? And would they make a movie about it?
I love that filmmakers are making issue films that are films first and vehicles for their message second – they’ll make better films and be more successful getting their message across. The question then becomes: how far away from your point do you have to go to make your point? In the case of “Promised Land,” I think they just went a bit too far.