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“Promised Land”: a semi-review

January 8, 2013

I saw the new film “Promised Land” last night, and was quite underwhelmed.   It’s not a bad movie, but it is pretty standard fare and not a great one, either.  I anticipated having to write a rebuttal of the movie, but I found its “anti-fracking” elements to be neither particularly compelling nor a major part of the movie.  Perhaps that is because I am so well versed in the research on fracking, but other than a few specific moments, the (mostly specious) environmental arguments against fracking were left out.  Indeed, the film makers made something of a cultural argument against shale gas development – that somehow the character and culture of rural America would be lost if development progressed (while at the same time making a compelling argument that said culture was dying anyway).

Although I have lived in Los Angeles for over 20 years, I was born, raised and lived most of my life in a small dairy farming community in upstate New York – right on top of the Marcellus Shale formation.   The biggest irritant to me in this film was the way it portrayed the rural denizens of the unnamed state in which it took place (probably New York, although it was filmed in Pennsylvania).  Hollywood has two general ways that it portrays rural Americans – they are either dangerous backwoods psychotics, or simple pale faced versions of the Noble Savage.  “Promised Land” took the latter route – the only sophisticated locals were those who were actually urbanites (teachers played by Hal Holbrook and Rosemary Dewitt) who had chosen to return to the land and grace the benighted locals with their superior knowledge.  I was always offended by this paternalistic portrayal, even more than the more common “dangerous redneck” presentations.

Spoiler Alert:  The following will give away a crucial plot point, so stop reading here if you intend to see the movie and don’t want it ruined.

The film did touch on but failed to really develop a very interesting topic – disinformation.   John Krasinski plays an outside agitating environmentalist intent on stopping the drilling company’s plans.  However, he is exposed as a liar on the very evening of the town vote, destroying his credibility and presumably causing the town to vote in favor of gas development.  The twist is that he was never what he appeared to be – he was not an environmentalist, but rather an agent provocateur in the employ of the gas company.  His intent was to be exposed and to thus discredit the environmental arguments.   This is an interesting story to tell, but film makers chose to expose it and end it.  It reminds of the curious tale of Oswald LeWinter, who was the initial source for the October Surprise theories surrounding the Iranian Hostage crisis in the weeks leading up to the 1980 election.   LeWinter serially peddled the story to multiple writers, who built upon his leads to claim that elements of the Reagan team, led by George Bush the Elder, had conspired with the Islamic  Revolutionary Government to keep the hostages until after the election in exchange for certain favors from the new administration.  This would prevent the Carter team from landing a late foreign policy success (October Surprise) that would save the election for them.  However, once the story began to gain traction, a few parts of LeWinter’s story were easily proven false, which led to the whole thing being dismissed as false (a sort of  “fruit of the poison tree” outcome).  This sort of clever duplicity would make an excellent thriller, but in “Promised Land” it is unexplored and tossed off too quickly.

In summary – a disappointing film.  Not bad,but far from great.  I didn’t really expect it to be a great movie, but I expected a more strenuous protest against fracking and shale gas development – I was, indeed, hoping for it, and looking forward to engaging in the debate once again, but the film failed me on even that point.

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