Fracking Fiction
Promised Land pulls a fast one on moviegoers.

Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in Promised Land (Focus Features)



Damon’s failures are all the more unfortunate given that the characters are all the movie has to rely on. Even Mother Jones writes that “by the film’s end, Matt Damon will have taught you precisely two things about fracking: That it’s bad for cows, and even worse for heartfelt dramatic monologues delivered by Matt Damon.”

On the pros and cons of fracking, Promised Land is pitiful. The plot rests on the assumption that fracking contaminates water. But Lisa Jackson, who just resigned as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has reluctantly told Congress that there are no “proven cases where the fracking process itself has affected water.”

And the most thorough description of the fracking process comes courtesy of Krasinski, who douses a toy farm set with household chemicals and lights it on fire to the delight of a classroom full of kids. Then he dangles the class turtle above the flaming mess, asking the children if their pet would like to live there now. Obviously, this is alarmism in the place of argument. 

The film briefly alludes to arguments in favor of fracking, but it never takes them seriously, instead introducing cameo characters whose sole purpose is to illustrate emotional points rather than scientific ones. For example, do you think fracking might help make the U.S. energy independent? Here’s a one-minute allusion to a little boy whose father fought overseas, and one character asking if that soldier’s sacrifice was worth nothing. Think fracking provides economic benefits, including hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs, to rural communities? Well, here’s Matt Damon’s character ripping families off. And here’s a guy with a hick accent who takes the corporate check and uses it to make a down payment on a tricked-out car he clearly cannot afford. Some economic benefit!

These emotional appeals don’t stand up, and neither does the ending, at least artistically. The plot twist is nevertheless clever, though, because real-life environmentalists haven’t been honest in their arguments against fracking, either. For example, just last year, the EPA issued a preliminary report claiming that fracking contaminated water in Pavillion, Wyo. — and if the report had been accurate, it would have been an unprecedented connection. But further examination showed that the EPA’s research was incredibly flawed, and that the study had been initially released before peer review. The claim was political, not scientific, and it proved an embarrassment to the EPA. That’s no anomaly; environmental groups have been caught repeatedly using shoddy science to further their cause.

In an Alinskyite twist, Promised Land introduces the suspicion that such deception is actually the doing of Machiavellian energy giants. When you consider the track record of alarmist environmentalism, that’s classic projection, of course — but the public has proven willing to assume the worst of corporations.

Many moviegoers won’t take the time to examine the actual facts of fracking, instead taking Promised Land’s word for it that the practice hurts the environment. In reality, Big Film takes the place of Big Energy, pulling a fast one on Americans who haven’t done their homework. But, in the words of Krasinski’s character: “What else was I supposed to do? It’s not a fair fight.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.