Good Will FrackingPosted: December 12, 2012
Hollywood wimps out and makes a formula film
After a decade of war and half-century of costly military involvement in the Middle East, the United States stands on the brink of “energy independence.” Then a shadowy Canadian billionaire coupled with Mideast oil interests sponsor a Hollywood propaganda movie aimed at luring Americans into throwing away the instrument of their deliverance: shale energy.
They co-opt a name-brand Hollywood movie star to be the useful idiot of their nefarious plot. The movie is released a few days after Christmas, just in time for Oscar nominations in a diabolical scheme to influence a national debate over fracking.
In other words, a typically stupid Hollywood thriller plot, except for a minor deviation: The poor shmuck actor is Matt Damon and he’s making a real movie, albeit with its own typically stupid Hollywood plot, one that doubles down on the conventional “evil oil company” stereotype.
So will Americans flood out of theaters early next year demanding to be relieved of the shale bounty? Not likely. And before getting too conspiratorial, Abu Dhabi’s last movie was a Nick Cage “Ghost Rider” stinker, while Jeffrey Skoll, the Canadian eBay billionaire and co-financier who makes no secret of his progressive longings, also backed “Lincoln” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
Perhaps Mr. Damon at least made a good movie. Alas, early word is not promising. Variety, not constitutionally inclined to criticism, called it “dramatically underpowered” and said its plot “cheapens the seriousness of the issues at stake.”
If a movie were to tell the truth about fracking, it would begin with the core conflict, which isn’t between environmentalists and earth-raping oil companies. Fracking was a bone of contention first of all between landowners who wanted to cash in on energy royalties and neighbors who didn’t want the neighborhood invaded by heavy industry.
Yard signs abounded. Longtime acquaintances bellowed at each other in town-hall meetings. Groups professionally hostile to energy development only arrived later, having had the wit to notice that the more affluent, country-home owning opponents of local fracking were the environmental groups’ natural constituents.
Thus was born a political war, complete with standard “Big Oil” versus “Greenies” symbology, out of what had been a neighbor versus neighbor dispute. Yet, truth be told, neighbor versus neighbor is still the only story that’s interesting. Fracking, in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, came into a world long abandoned by economic dynamism. Fracking threatened to transform a bucolic quietude that some liked just fine and others couldn’t wait to earn enough money to escape.
This is the story of economic development in every time and place, which is never without its ambivalences, transforming landscapes, inflating property values, altering social dynamics. To treat these themes realistically in a movie is not a sin. Energy companies in the Marcellus Shale were never going to be especially sensitive to the dilemmas they created for residents with the big money they were handing out. Residents were always going to be what they were: conflicted, greedy, frightened, resentful.
Filmmakers may be ideological numbskulls, but their real problem is often that they are cowards, too afraid of their friends to make an interesting movie. The painter Degas once said, “A picture must be painted with the same feeling as that with which a criminal commits his crime.” If Degas meant anything by this, he likely meant that caring too much who approves or disapproves is the death of art.
If a screenplay leaked by the pro-fracking activist Phelim McAleer is accurate, art dies in Mr. Damon’s movie in an ironic way. In the real world, water-pollution fears put forward by fracking’s opponents have proved largely hokum. The movie deals with this inconvenient fact by turning its eco-activist protagonist into an agent provocateur of the oil company, whose job is to discredit the environmental opposition from within.
Which is very much like what ideological critics are saying about Mr. Damon’s “Promised Land”—that the film’s backers are an unholy alliance of green money and oil sheiks out to abort America’s fracking windfall.
Bad art is bad art. It seeks to compensate for its own lack of confidence by inflating the stakes. What makes fracking fascinating is precisely the quotidian fact that, in every way, we are inclined to celebrate economic progress except when it disturbs our own familiar scenery and routines. Fracking, for this reason, is proving to be the most carefully observed, policed and debated industrial revolution in the history of industrial revolutions. And a movie that had the courage to be interesting about all this might actually be worth watching.
A version of this article appeared December 12, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Good Will Fracking.