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Ohio Utica Shale

'Promised Land' is entertaining movie that tries to sway viewers

By Bob Downing Published: January 5, 2013

A film review of Promised Land:

Everyone seems to think that Matt Damon’s new film, Promised Land, is about fracking.

It is and it isn’t.

The film, directed by Gus Van Sant (Milk and Good Will Hunting), is about what happens before drillers use hydraulic fracturing or fracking for natural gas.  That is the controversial method of using water, sand and chemicals to free up natural gas in underground rock and the subject of continued national debate.

The story is centered on the natural gas company landmen who arrive to sign landowners up for leases before the drilling can begin.

Promised Land is an engaging and entertaining movie that is carried largely by a winning cast: Damon, John Krasinki, Frances McDormand and an aged Hal Holbrook.  

The screenplay by Damon and Krasinski from a story by Dave Eggers provides a first-rate twist.

Those are the real strengths of the movie.

It is also clearly a not-so-subtle message movie. It is out to sway people. But the messages are soft and plain. The lecturing is sparse. It is not overbearing.

Promised Land is, at its heart, a tale of morality, dreams, greed, manipulation, sales jobs, conscience, disappearing farms and community, the power of money, community divisions and environmental concerns.

It is about a battle for hearts and minds in the communities as energy companies battle environmentalists over how great a risk fracking may be.

But the film is not entirely accurate.

It gives the image that a small town can block drilling (not the case) and implies that whole towns will turn their back on drilling and drilling dollars (an unlikely scenario). It may overstate the potential risk from drilling to water and air.

Promised Land is designed largely to entertain, not really to inform. But the film, shot in western Pennsylvania, leaves little doubt where its sympathies lie.

Steve Butler (Damon) plays a landman sent to a rural Pennsylvania town by a giant energy corporation to convince struggling local farmers to sign away their mineral rights and to win support from local politicians. He is savvy and skilled at what he does

He wears the right clothes, touts his Iowa farm roots and sees himself providing hope to the locals.

He is joined by co-worker Sue Thomason (McDormand).

A few residents of McKinley, Pa., the fictional town, embrace the land deals but many are wary.

Krasinksi plays Dustin Noble, an environmentalist who ostensibly comes to wage a grass-roots campaign against the project.  That effort is aided by Holbrook’s character, the town’s wise old and retired scientist.

Water, by design, not accident, creeps into many scenes to remind viewers of the threat the filmmakers  see from fracking.

Damon is low key and earnest as his character becomes increasingly conflicted. Krasinski is sly and smart in his role. McDormand is solid but underused. Holbrook has many of the best scenes.

The movie suffers from a lackluster, low-drama ending. It plods along with only two emotional scenes: one with Holbrook and one with Damon. Its plainness is obviously by design. The naturalistic acting largely carries the film

Promised Land is an enjoyable and timely Hollywood film and little more. It won’t change peoples’ minds about fracking. It is too shallow to do that.

 I give it a 6 on a 1-to-10 scale for its entertainment value.











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Utica and Marcellus shale web sites

Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management State agency Web site.

ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. State drilling permits. List is updated weekly.

ODNR Division of Geological Survey.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Ohio State University Extension.

Ohio Farm Bureau.

Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a Granville-based group that represents 1,500 Ohio energy-related companies.

Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program.

Energy In Depth, a trade group.

Marcellus and Utica Shale Resource Center by Ohio law firm Bricker & Eckler.

Utica Shale, a compilation of Utica shale activities.

Landman Report Card, a site that looks at companies involved in gas and oil leases.FracFocus, a compilation of chemicals used in fracking individual wells as reported voluntarily by some drillers.

Chesapeake Energy Corp,the Oklahoma-based firm is the No. 1 driller in Ohio.

Rig Count Interactive Map by Baker Hughes, an energy services company.

Shale Sheet Fracking, a Youngstown Vindicator blog.

National Geographic's The Great Shale Rush.

The Ohio Environmental Council, a statewide eco-group based in Columbus.

Buckeye Forest Council.

Earthjustice, a national eco-group.

Stop Fracking Ohio.

People's Oil and Gas Collaborative-Ohio, a grass-roots group in Northeast Ohio.

Concerned Citizens of Medina County, a grass-roots group.

No Frack Ohio, a Columbus-based grass-roots group.

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat by ProPublica, an online journalism site.

Penn State Marcellus Center.

Pipeline, blog from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Marcellus shale drilling.

Allegheny Front, environmental public radio for Western Pennsylvania.