Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter
You won’t find any resolution about fracking in Promised Land, Matt Damon’s movie that went nationwide this weekend. But you will find condemnation, a very surprising plot twist and one egregious science scene.
The timing couldn’t be better. New York State, the front lines in the political battle over whether to vastly expand the hydraulic fracturing of deep shales to retrieve natural gas, is about to decide whether to allow drilling companies to invade, as had happened in neighboring Pennsylvania. Environmentalists and geologists have raised loud alarms that fracking could contaminate drinking water supplies. Citizen groups have raised a raucous that has delayed New York’s decision and has vaulted fracking into a national political debate. So I was very intrigued to see how Promised Land was going to handle the science and politics of fracking.
The plot seems straightforward. Damon, who co-produced the movie and stars in the lead role, plays Steve Butler, a salesman for Global, a $9 billion gas company. He and co-salesperson, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), have come to rural McKinley in Pennsylvania to get residents to sign lucrative contracts allowing Global to drill on their farms. They also work on the town’s supervisor, Gerry Richards (Ken Strunk), to help convince the farmers. Steve, who grew up in a small Iowa farm town that fell on hard times, steadily wins the confidence of residents in economically depressed McKinley, who want to believe that the gas windfall could restore the community.
Steve and Sue seem to be succeeding until an anonymous environmentalist, Dustin Noble, shows up. Turns out that Dustin, played by co-producer John Krasinski, is also from a small town, and he gradually beats Steve at his own game, winning over more and more townspeople and even getting the edge on the attractive elementary school teacher Steve was smitten with. Hey, it’s a Matt Damon movie; he needs to get the girl.
That angle is more than the typical romantic subplot, because the teacher, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), allows Dustin to visit her classroom and explain what fracking is to her students. That’s where the science, which has been largely missing from the movie, suddenly ignites, literally, and is terribly portrayed.
Before this scene, the only insight we get into what fracking actually is comes from the town supervisor, who explains to a group of locals that the drillers drill miles down into the earth to break the rock. That’s true, but no mention is made that the drilling turns horizontal and extends for thousands of feet. At one point Steve also says that fracking has been done for 50 years and no one’s water has been contaminated; again, for about 40 of those years the drilling had been almost exclusively vertical, and not involved the enormous volumes of water and chemicals used in the horizontal process. The horizontal drilling is what’s behind the scientific and political fight, it’s what’s been done in thousands of wells in Pennsylvania, and it’s what the gas companies want to do in New York, to exploit the vast Marcellus Shale that lies beneath both states.
Okay, maybe we waive those criticisms because they don’t quite matter to the level of technical discourse in Promised Land. But the previous fracking movie that put the issues on the map, Gasland, a 2010 documentary produced by and starring Josh Fox, took some heat on its portrayal of facts, so maybe Damon and Krasinksi were skittish about getting into details when they reviewed their own rough cut.
(Spoiler alert!) But then we get to the elementary school scene. Just at the height of the tension between gas guy Steve and enviro hero Dustin, teacher Alice invites Dustin to her classroom. He has built a big model of a farm on Alice’s desk, with a nice farmhouse, green grass, a tractor and cute farm animals grazing about. He says some people want to come drill on that farm. But they don’t use a little drill like your daddy does around the farm, they use a really big drill—and he wields a big spike and starts poking holes in the grass around the farmhouse and animals. He then explains how the company people need to help the drilling by using sand; he holds up a gallon-sized clear-plastic freezer bag with some sand in it. And they don’t just use sand, he tells them, they also use water, lots of water; he drains a plastic water bottle into the sandy bag. The kids seem to think that’s excessive. And they also need chemicals; he plops three big bottles of chemicals onto the desk, then dumps them like waterfalls into the bag, which startles the kids. The portrayal is also totally wrong. Although thousands of gallons of chemicals are sent down a fracking well, that’s compared with millions of gallons of water, so the mix in the bag is extremely disproportionate.
Now the kids, and Alice, are wary. But here’s where the real transgression occurs. Dustin says that to get the gas out, the company has to pour the sand, water and chemicals into the holes. So he holds the now busting bag over the farm and pours the nasty mixture all over the grass, the animals, everything, until the toy plot is soaking wet. The kids are aghast. Yet that’s not all. See, when the chemicals are in the ground they can get into the water, and when that happens—he reaches for an igniter, one of those handheld flints, about the size of a pair of scissors, that go “click-click” to light a barbecue grill. Alice, seeing where this is going, says no, but Dustin says, “It’s okay, trust me.” He touches the igniter to the grass, it goes “click-click,” and phoom! The whole farmstead goes up in flames.
Sorry, movie people, but that’s ridiculous. Contaminating groundwater is a serious issue, and having gas infiltrate drinking water is a serious issue. But a farmhouse’s front yard wouldn’t be soaking in chemicals and it wouldn’t ignite like a fire pit because of fracking. And doing that in front of 10-year-old kids is a cheap trick.
Well, that act clinches it. Dustin has won. Or so we think. Steve and partner Sue still sign some people but the town is getting together in the local high school gym before the boys basketball game to vote on whether to allow Global to frack or not. Steve has lost the fight, lost Alice, will lose his job, yet strangely, we feel sorry for him. When he’s signing the last few contracts, we find ourselves rooting for him to win, because he’s also been punched in the face by the local farm hooligans, he has been called out by the (barely present) local high school science teacher, played by a terrific Hal Holbrook, and he seems sincerely worried that this town is going to die like the one he grew up in. He’s convinced that even though he’s an operator for Global, the contracts are the only way for the townspeople to survive.
Now, if you’ve read this far, you will be rewarded, because here’s the best part. Just before the culminating vote scene, Steve gets an envelope at his broken-down motel with photographic evidence that Dustin has been lying about cows on a farm in another state that purportedly died because of contaminated water, which is the device he was using to scare the residents. This suddenly opens up a terrific plot twist that surprised every person in theater, and it plays out quickly. So if you want to see the movie and be surprised, stop reading. But if you want to know the bottom line of how Damon has chosen to paint the gas industry, read on.
Alice and the townspeople hear about the lies, which virtually ensures that they will vote in favor of fracking. Steve confronts Dustin, who is leaving his room in the same dilapidated motel and about to get into his rusty truck, with his head down, defeated. Steve provokes him, and Dustin mistakenly utters a comment that makes Steve realize that Dustin has been lying about lying. It turns out that Dustin is not an environmentalist. He’s a higher-level employee of Global who has been posing as one. He got the townspeople on his side, then slipped the photos to Steve, so Steve would expose the lie, so the residents would be repulsed and jump to trusty Steve’s side, ready to sign up with Global after all. “You didn’t think Global was going to allow this to come to a ‘vote,’” Dustin tells Steve, who is in disbelief that his own company set him up.
The townspeople collect in the gym, energized for promising riches, as the poor boys basketball team, dressed in sad-looking uniforms, sit on the bench waiting patiently for the crowd to get the vote over with. The town supervisor invites Steve to say a few words, ostensibly to give him a moment as the real hero. But Steve reveals the entire con job; he is indeed the good guy, after all. Now the town is really stuck, and we never see how the vote turns out. Matt Damon ends the movie with himself walking through the white picket fence in front of Alice’s house to find her at the front door, and of course, he gets the girl.
As such, Promised Land doesn’t try to resolve whether fracking is dangerous, although the classroom scene seems to take care of that in its poor excessiveness. And it doesn’t try to resolve whether a depressed farm community would really benefit from fracking. But the plot twist clearly and effectively portrays the big gas companies as liars, willing to go to any length to deceive and manipulate an individual or town. Promised Land ends up not being about how fracking could bring environmental threats, but how a huge corporation is willing to lie to get what it wants. Believe it, or not.
Postscript: insider quips. As I noted, the movie does not explain what “fracking” really is. My own college-aged daughter left the theater acknowledging that she still didn’t understand it. Yet the film contains two fun, insider jabs that the general public might not get. After Holbrook’s character, Frank, confronts Steve at an early meeting, Global does a background check and calls Steve and says Frank is not just an old, local science teacher, he has engineering degrees from MIT and Cornell. Well, geoengineers at Cornell have been at the forefront of the scientific debate about whether or not fracking can contaminate groundwater. And near the end, when Dustin reveals that he, too, is a Global employee, he tries to sooth the stunned Steve by telling him he’s done really well at signing people up. As he leaves the motel he says to Steve, “Good luck in New York.” Meaning, the fight is over in Pennsylvania, and New York will be the big battleground. Considering how long it takes to create and release a movie, that was a risk, and the timing has worked out.
Photo courtesy of Save the Children on Flickr