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Environment & Science

Fracking makes its way to the big screen

Still of Matt Damon in the film
Still of Matt Damon in the film "The Promised Land."
Sam Jones
Still of Matt Damon in the film
(l to r) John Krasinski, Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon on the set of Promised Land, a Focus Features release. Credit Scott Green
Scott Green
Still of Matt Damon in the film
Matt Damon plays Steve, a closer for an energy company who returns to the kind of small farming town he grew up in to sell it on hydraulic fracturing.

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From race to politics, Hollywood often explores tense topics in the news. Now, some movies and TV shows are taking on another headline grabbing issue: fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial way to extract oil and gas from land in places like Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado, and yes, Los Angeles. Fracking, as it’s called, gets the Hollywood treatment this weekend, as the subject of a new fictional film called Promised Land.

Matt Damon plays a guy named Steve who closes contracts for a big energy company so that the company can frack under the properties. Sitting down in the local diner with a greedy local politician, Steve plays hardball.

“Best case scenario, there’s 30 million dollars under your town. 0.1% is 30 thousand dollars, that’s what I’m authorized to offer you,” he says, over coffee. “I’m also telling you it’s a one time offer.”

But Steve, as written by Krasinski and Damon, isn’t all good or all bad. In that same diner scene, he really is trying to warn the local official that this is a good opportunity for the struggling town. And he would know, being from a poor farming town himself.

“Don’t do this…after every single town within three states has signed up for this, and the blows of this economy are almost unbearable. We’re going to come back. And we will offer you nothing, we will offer this town nothing,” Steve says. “Now please. Let some other guy be last.”

The energy industry isn’t crazy about Promised Land. It has seen fracking taken on before, in a rash of documentaries released in the last several years: Josh Fox’s polemic Gasland (and the follow-up, The Sky is Pink) has garnered the most attention. Split Estate presented hazards of fracking; Truthland aimed to combat what its makers saw as errors in Gasland. The trend included The Hidden Cost of Hydraulic Fracturing and Unearthed too. 

Most recently, some Marina Del Rey based journalists made FrackNation. A key idea in that film is that gas has mingled in water throughout American history, and concerns about fracking's harm to water and the people who drink it are overblown. (FrackNation premieres next month on AXS.TV.)

What is new is seeing fracking not just in mainstream movies, but sitcoms too. Last Man Standing is the Tim Allen show this season. Set in Colorado, Allen plays Mike Baxter, a marketing director for an outdoor-sporting good enterprise. Nancy Travis plays his wife Vanessa, a geologist educated at Ohio State who works for an energy company. She takes a lot of flack about fracking after she gives a career day lecture at one daughter's school. 

“Mom, if even half this stuff is true you have to quit that job!,” she says. Mike Baxter intervenes. “Stop, we’re done. The Sierra Club meeting is over. She works for an energy company. They produce, what is it called? energy. The best energy now is oil, coal and gas.” Vanessa Baxter points out that natural gas is the most “environmentally friendly” of the three.

Baxter's dismissal of his daughter’s concerns is rooted part in his cantankerous dad character, but it’s also a matter of politics. His daughter’s ex-boyfriend, in on the debate, argues that fracking is always potentially hazardous. “Carbon gases cause climate change. The ice caps are melting, the polar bears are drowning.”

To which Tim Allen replies, “Well maybe those fat cracker bears should learn how to swim.”

Last Man Standing is an old-school, lesson-in-the-half-hour kind of show, based on this one episode. The lesson is compromise: Vanessa Baxter tells her daughter that her burgeoning environmental values don't take into account the fact that geologists only have a couple of work options: energy companies, and teaching college students. 

WIll these fracking forays succeed in winning views over to either side? Jury's out, at best. Energy companies haven't pushed as hard against Promised Land as they might have if its reviews were better. Combining the personal and the political in art isn't usually easy. But the box office may not be the best way to decide.