Friday, December 28, 2012

Van Sant Goes Capra


What Price Honor in Corporate America?

By Skip Sheffield

First, be aware “The Promised Land” is an ironic title. I don’t think people would flock to theaters for “At What Price Fracking?”
Yes, “Promised Land” is a tale centered on the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, but it is also a cautionary tale about corporate greed and arrogance along with the ethical and ecological danger of selling out to the highest bidder.
Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film is based on a story by David K. Eggers, whose “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize and earned him the sobriquet “The J. D. Salenger of Generation X.” The screenplay is a collaboration between its two stars, Matt Damon and John Krasinsky.
Damon is Steve Butler, a hotshot salesman and candidate for vice president of Global Crossover Solutions, a New York-based conglomerate with a natural gas drilling division. The strategy is to breeze into some depressed hick town, ingratiate oneself with the locals, and convince them to sell the drilling rights of their land, preferably for the least amount of money, for maximum corporate profit.
Steve exploits his own history as a former farm boy from an Iowa town that went bust when its tractor factory pulled out of town.
The rural town of McKinley in western Pennsylvania is a perfect target. Most of the farms, in many cases in a family for generations, are on the verge of bankruptcy. Under those farms is a fortune in natural gas. However, hydraulic fracturing requires toxic chemicals which leach into the water table and soil.
Steve is picked up on the outskirts of town by his soft-sell partner, Sue Thompson (Frances McDormand), who has bought an old pickup truck to blend in. The couple’s first stop is a general store where they stock up on blue jeans, flannels and provisions. The store keeper is no fool.
“You’re from the gas company, aren’t you? He says with a knowing smile.
While many of the farmers are eager to take the money and run, there are holdouts. They are represented by Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a retired high school science teacher who knows all about fracking and its dangers.
So does Dustin Noble (John Krasinsky), a crusading environmentalist who comes to town to preach of the horrors of fracking, complete with photos, charts and diagrams.
Offering a diversion from the main plot is Steve’s interest in Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a pretty teacher who is also a family landowner.
It all boils town to a town meeting very much in the Frank Capra tradition. Matt Damon is ideally-suited to play the basically good guy seduced by the power, prestige and profit of corporate America. Frances McDormand adds some depth to her one-dimensional character with her scenes as a single mother, keeping in touch with her son via Skype.
There is a dandy twist to the plot that will have liberals cheering and conservatives scoffing. As with most all morality tales, “Promised Land” is simplistic, with clear-cut heroes and villains. The real story of economic survival in 21st century America is a heck of a lot more complicated.  At two hours, 20 minutes it could have used some judicious editing, but it is a story that deserves to be told.

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