Behold. Hydraulic fracturing, “fracking,” is the new cause celebre, a movement drawing star power. Actors Mark Ruffalo, Robert Redford, Amy Ryan and the star of Gus Van Sant’s new anti-fracking film “Promised Land,” John Krasinkski, along with America’s socially active movie star, Matt Damon, are out on the stump fighting for the cause.
Here we get “Promised Land,” which critics are calling, “Capra-lite,” after the great 30s-40s director, who carried a klieg light torch for the common man in his films.
There are a few shades of Capra hanging around the edges of the story, written by Damon and “The Office” star, John Krasinski, from the story by Dave Eggers. It has a compelling script and message with heart and summer’s glow, black hats and white, tricks and betrayal.
The Capra touch refers to that director’s trick of bringing in a good guy with good teeth and a soul to match (Gary Cooper in “John Doe,” Jimmy Stewart in almost anything,) and setting him up for a fall, smothering him with corporate bad guys, throwing rocks at him, and then in the last few moments, pulling a rabbit out of a worn fedora and rescuing him. But the rabbit out of this hat is hard, cynical and very, very up to date.
Some may see the bunny coming, some will be surprised.
Damon plays Steve Butler, an up-and-coming company man with a corner window office in his future, if he plays his cards right, and makes sure the deck is not stacked.
Steve is a once-upon-a-time farm boy from Iowa, who went to a good school and was only one of two in his class who didn’t opt out for agriculture. Steve went corporate.
Now he’s been tagged as the new golden boy, and promised a bigger job with Global Crosspower Solutions, a power unit out to frack its way into the natural gas boom.
Steve is the good guy here, with country grass stains still under his finger tips. He almost seems not to care very much about the evils of fracking, but comes to genuinely feel for the failing farm folks in his newly assigned town, and really thinks that the natural gas gold mine under the feet of the locals will give them an option, a get-out-of-penury-jail card to better their lives.
Steve comes to town with his aide de camp, Sue Thomason (the forever welcome Frances McDormand.) Sue has been to this show before, and has the hard edges our hero lacks.
As Steve goes door to door buying up the easy marks’ drilling rights, with his famous smile and earnestness, Sue drives the prop car, a cranky pickup, and helps him buy the prop clothes, flannel shirts and Carhartt pants. In a nice touch that serves as a roadmap to where we’re going, Steve wears his grandfather’s boots.
But Sue is always there on the edges, like a soft blond Iago,watching with a cynical eye.
At the pre-arranged town meeting in a local gymnasium right out of “Hoosiers,” Steve confronts the locals with his pitch: millions of dollars for all. But as the Capra formula would have it, there is a Mr. Smith in the audience, one Frank Yates, a good-old-boy science teacher (a wonderful Hal Holbrook) who just happens to have graduated from MIT. Frank is a Googler, who knows all about fracking and what it does to the land and water. He’s not a flinty Luddite, but a gentle, soft-spoken soul who seems to sense something better in Steve.
There will be two players in the mix who will vie for a piece of Steve’s conscience, school teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt, “Company Men”) who with a soft-cushioned but razor-sharp magnetism, pulls the focus of the movie around her. She and Steve meet cute in the local pub and after a drinking game, he wakes up on her couch. Okay, the relationship is predictable, but we like it.
And then a new player comes to town, a young environmental activist and anti-fracker, with posters and signs and a panel truck bearing the logo “Athena.” Dustin Noble (Krasinski) is a pleasant, easy-going Cassandra, quietly and slowly winning over the menfolk. A battle is set up.
“Promised Land” is a nice story, warm around the edges but with a cold center where the truth is, the truth about corporate America and the search for alternative energy, a search not just to keep us warm, but to enrich the searchers, the new wildcatters. The coldness comes at the end when we, and Steve, discover the truth. Like those pipes in the verdant meadows, it’s not pretty.
J.P. Devine, a Waterville writer, is a former stage and screen actor.