Good Will Fracking
Redacted from a film review by HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR.
Wall Street Journal
December 11, 2012
After a decade of war and half-century of costly military involvement in the Middle East, the United States stands on the brink of “energy independence.” Then a shadowy Canadian billionaire coupled with Mideast oil interests sponsor a Hollywood propaganda movie aimed at luring Americans into throwing away the instrument of their deliverance: shale energy.
They co-opt a name-brand Hollywood movie star (Matt Damon) to be the useful idiot of their nefarious plot. The movie is released a few days after Christmas, just in time for Oscar nominations in a diabolical scheme to influence a national debate over fracking.
In other words, a typically stupid Hollywood thriller plot, except for a minor deviation: The poor shmuck actor is Matt Damon and he’s making a real movie, albeit with its own typically stupid Hollywood plot, one that doubles down on the conventional “evil oil company” stereotype.”
If you somehow missed the twists and turns, Mr. Damon, who played a genius in “Good Will Hunting” and a master spy in the “Bourne” movies, has pled ignorance of the fact that financing for his movie came partly from Abu Dhabi, which, as the Heritage Foundation puts it, has a “direct financial interest” in fanning opposition to domestic energy development.
So will Americans flood out of theaters early next year demanding to be relieved of the shale bounty? Not likely. And before getting too conspiratorial, Abu Dhabi’s last movie was a Nick Cage “Ghost Rider” stinker, while Jeffrey Skoll, the Canadian eBay EBAY 0.25% billionaire and co-financier who makes no secret of his progressive longings, also backed “Lincoln” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
Perhaps Mr. Damon at least made a good movie. Alas, early word is not promising. Variety, not constitutionally inclined to criticism, called it “dramatically underpowered” and said its plot “cheapens the seriousness of the issues at stake.” If a movie were to tell the truth about fracking, it would begin with the core conflict, which isn’t between environmentalists and earth-raping oil companies. Fracking was a bone of contention first of all between landowners who wanted to cash in on energy royalties and neighbors who didn’t want the neighborhood invaded by heavy industry.
Yard signs abounded. Longtime acquaintances bellowed at each other in town-hall meetings. Groups professionally hostile to energy development only arrived later, having had the wit to notice that the more affluent, country-home owning opponents of local fracking were the environmental groups’ natural constituents.
Thus was born a political war, complete with standard “Big Oil” versus “Greenies” symbology, out of what had been a neighbor versus neighbor dispute. Yet, truth be told, neighbor versus neighbor is still the only story that’s interesting. Fracking, in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, came into a world long abandoned by economic dynamism. Fracking threatened to transform a bucolic quietude that some liked just fine and others couldn’t wait to earn enough money to escape.
This is the story of economic development in every time and place, which is never without its ambivalences, transforming landscapes, inflating property values, altering social dynamics. To treat these themes realistically in a movie is not a sin. Energy companies in the Marcellus Shale were never going to be especially sensitive to the dilemmas they created for residents with the big money they were handing out. Residents were always going to be what they were: conflicted, greedy, frightened, resentful.
If a screenplay leaked by the pro-fracking activist Phelim McAleer is accurate, art dies in Mr. Damon’s movie in an ironic way. In the real world, water-pollution fears put forward by fracking’s opponents have proved largely hokum. Which is very much like what ideological critics are saying about Mr. Damon’s “Promised Land”— that the film’s backers are an unholy alliance of green money and oil sheiks out to abort America’s fracking windfall.
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