‘Promised Land’ and the Pitfalls of Political Cinema

Fracking is bad. This is not a unanimously held view; like so much of environmental policy in this country, the greasy sway of dirty money has turned what should be a health issue into a political one, and as a result, the issue of hydraulic fracturing has become one of predominately liberal interest, taken up by progressive organizations and left-leaning docs like GasLand. And now it is the subject of Promised Land, a message movie from director Gus Van Sant and writer/actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski that plays less like drama and more like a 106-minute forgone conclusion — and as a warning of the potential pitfalls of narrative political cinema.

Let’s clarify two things, right off the bat. First, Promised Land is, by just about any aesthetic definition, a well-made film: Van Sant’s direction is measured and effective; the performances by Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Frances McDormand, and (especially) Matt Damon are heartfelt and forceful; the cinematography by Linus Sandgren, heavy on small-town and farmland beauty shots, is lovely. And second, I am on this movie’s side, ideologically. The dangers of fracking are real, and scary, and worth our attention. But there’s something inherently less than compelling in spending the entirety of a film waiting for its main character to come around to the point of view that we know its creators — and for that matter, most of its audience — walked in with.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a hotshot closer for a natural gas company whose rosy future is laid out with almost comical clarity in the opening scenes — he’s just received the nod for a big promotion and a move to the head office in New York, once he’s done closing this one last big deal. He and his partner (McDormand) just have to get the drilling rights from property owners in a small and struggling farm community. But wouldn’t you know it, this time it doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to, thanks to the efforts of an idealistic environmentalist played by Krasinski and named — I’m not kidding — Dustin Noble. That moniker isn’t even the film’s least subtle element; for that dubious distinction, I’m gonna go ahead and go with Damon’s big sales pitch to the town, which is delivered, in the school gym, in a giant close-up framed by (of course) the American flag on the wall behind him. BECAUSE AMERICA, GET IT?

Look, there’s nothing wrong with telling a predictable story — there are, after all, only a handful of basic plots to begin with. We go to romantic comedies and action movies and the like not to be surprised by their outcomes, but to enjoy the journey to those predetermined destinations, and to the credit of Promised Land’s makers, they try their damnedest to throw in a couple of curveballs along the way. But the deck is so stacked, from frame one forward, that the film mostly plays like a long, slow march to an obvious conclusion — that fracking is bad, and that this flawed character will see the light. Ultimately, it comes down to the difference between narrative and advocacy, and advocacy (in most cases) isn’t terribly dramatic.

And who knows — maybe a more casual viewer, less engaged with the issue, will be persuaded by the film and what it has to say. But I doubt it. Documentaries exploring liberal issues (the works of Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald, Why We Fight, An Inconvenient Truth, the aforementioned GasLand) are often accused of “preaching to the choir” — that is, of speaking to and further sparking the outrage of their predisposed audience, rather than engaging the (for lack of a better phrase) “undecided voter” and swaying an opinion that wasn’t already set. Promised Land feels like the same kind of thing, with a bigger budget. Damon and Van Sant’s political views aren’t that hard to figure out, and I suppose it is admirable that Damon spent his time and energy making the film, when his previous attempt to merge his liberal politics and blockbuster sensibility resulted in Green Zone, one of his least successful vehicles (from a commercial standpoint). As with that film, I have a feeling mainstream audiences will know what they’re in for with Promised Land, and will pass. And the trouble is, they’ll be right.

This is not to say that there’s no place for politics in narrative storytelling — there are an abundance of examples to the contrary, from The Great Dictator to All the King’s Men to Good Night and Good Luck, in which Damon’s friend (and even more outspoken liberal) George Clooney used historical fact as a Crucible-style framework for modern commentary. But it must be done with more subtlety and tact than in Promised Land. If anything, Van Sant’s film reaffirms that value of a work like Zero Dark Thirty, which has driven commentators across the political spectrum bananas with its refusal to engage in the kind of on-the-nose moralizing and on-point messaging that is so easily trafficked in here. Zero is a film that raises political issues and challenges audiences to come to their own conclusions about them. That kind of thing is maddening to a certain kind of viewer who wants their political messages delivered unambiguously and without much in the way of complexity. I’d imagine those viewers will find Promised Land a good deal easier to swallow.