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Policy: Environment & Energy

With 'Promised Land,' Hollywood goes weird on fracking

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Opinion,Movies,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Campaign 2012,Energy and Environment,Fracking

If you plan to see the new Matt Damon film "Promised Land," stop reading this column right now because I'm about to spoil the hell out of it.

Not that I'd recommend the film. No matter what your political persuasion, you will likely find it frustrating. It is a deeply earnest work that wants to say something profound on a topical issue -- then completely undermines its own message. "Promised Land" is a useful reminder that although Hollywood is often described as a liberal enclave, it isn't necessarily much of an asset to liberal causes.

Matt Damon's newest film casts him as an earnest natural gas company official hoping to get a small, Midwestern town to agree to have its lands "fracked," (i.e., drilled), arguing it will make it rich.

His nemesis is an environmental activist played by John Krasinski. This charismatic, Bruce Springsteen-singing liberal appears to be winning the townspeople's hearts with a story about how fracking ruined his family's farm. He is subsequently discredited when Damon discovers the story isn't true.

The further twist is that the activist secretly works for the same company as Damon. He was a phony -- an agent provocateur sent by them to discredit the environmentalist case.

It is the kind of plot twist that starts falling apart the moment you start thinking about it, especially since Damon's character isn't in on the scam. What if Damon had flubbed the effort to discredit the activist? What if someone else discovered the fraud was working for the gas company? In the real world, it only would have taken one call to a major environmental group to find out that the group the activist supposedly represents doesn't exist.

Then there's the fact that the film undermines the very environmental message it is supposedly trying to send. Virtually all of the information in the film about how fracking is supposedly dangerous comes from the fake activist -- which obviously puts it all in question.

At the theater where I saw it Sunday, audience members walked out confused by the plot twists and the film's message. I seriously doubt that was the intention co-screenwriters Damon and Krasinski had.

A critic at the liberal Mother Jones magazine wrote that the big plot twist was "so unnecessary, so dumb, so out-of-place -- that [it] almost singlehandedly tanks any shred of dignity the film once might have possessed."

Fracking has been a tough issue for environmentalists. Not that long ago, they were positive on natural gas because it is cleaner-burning than coal and oil. That was before advances in fracking caused the estimates of available natural gas in the U.S. to soar. They now fear that gas is so abundant it will undermine the case for renewable energy like wind and solar.

So they've been eager to discredit fracking, arguing that the chemicals involved are dangerous to groundwater. The evidence for that is scarce though. In the most notorious case, in Dimock, Penn., the state environmental agency determined that the groundwater contamination wasn't from fracking but from faulty well casings.

Oh, and by the way, "Promised Land" was financed in part by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, a company wholly-owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates. In other words, a major oil-producing OPEC country was underwriting a film that tries to discourage natural gas (and oil) exploration.

Wait a minute -- a story about how the environmental movement's efforts to get liberals to oppose a clean-burning, abundant fuel is actually a front for Big Oil? Excuse me, I need to start writing a screenplay. I smell Oscar ...

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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