The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
There could be no timelier film than director Gus Van Sant’s film centering on a debate in the small town of McKinley over whether or not to allow a big energy company to use hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas embedded in the shale beneath their farms and town. Just as there are those who see this process as the answer for obtaining enough clean power to make us energy independent, so there are others concerned that though the natural gas itself is clean, the method of extracting the gas is very dirty, sometimes poisoning water, killing animals grazing on the land, and even creating tremors and small earthquakes.
Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a new hire at Global Crosspower Solutions, slated to become a vice-president if he persuades the citizens of the town to sign on with the company. Raised on an Iowan farm, Steve leaves Manhattan on a bus rather than a corporate jet. After meeting his sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), the two buy some folksy clothing at a local store so that they will fit in more. To them theirs should be an easy job, with the town in economic decline and few of the farms on a firm footing. After getting the mayor paid off so that he will support them, they attend the town hall meeting to present their case. However, they had not counted on high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) who has done his homework on fracking and organized a large group of the townsfolk to oppose the company’s plans. Thus before Steve can even speak, the audience is talked into holding off on a decision until two weeks hence.
Steve and Sue encounter even more opposition when environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) pulls into town, quickly hitting it off with the patrons of the town’s favorite bar and demonstrating to a school class the ill effects of fracking. The teacher of the class is Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), whom Steve had been attracted to earlier, but soon she is going on a date with the winsome Dustin. Steve and Sue continue to tour the farms to make their pitch, but by now many of the people are refusing to listen to them. Dustin has posted all over town and country pictures of a herd of dead cattle killed when the land around his farm in Nebraska was poisoned by fracking. Steve and Sue plan to put on a fair, complete with amusement rides, sponsored, of course, by Global, but a heavy downpour washes it out.
Steve at the beginning believes that he is truly helping the people out of a financial hole. He tells them how they can send their kids to college with the money they will make (though he has lied about the true worth of the gas that will be extracted to keep the payments as small as possible) or pay off their many bills. To Dustin’s distribution of literature with that disturbing picture Steve’s response is that it is not true. At the point at which it seems that he and Sue have lost their battle a package arrives from Global with a surprising revelation. This pushes him along a line of reasoning that convinces him he has been following the wrong path. How he deals with this reveals that this is a character transformation film as much as a social issue one.
Although the obvious issue is hydraulic fracking in this social justice film, the real story is about a man torn between selling or reclaiming his soul. There is also the sub theme, summed up well in what amounts to a little parable that he tells about his grandfather back in Iowa. Steve relates that every other year the family painted the old barn. When he asked why they did this, the old man said that it was because they needed to preserve it.
Matt Damon and his writing partner John Krasinski have given us an intriguing, though perhaps flawed film that follows the typical Bad Corporation screws the little guy formula, so successfully followed in Erin Brocovich. It also supports the myth of the idyllic small town vs. the evil city ethos. It’s picture of small town life is well done except for one matter, typical of Hollywood films whose writers lack the knowledge of real small towns. There is no mention of a church or pastor, so central in the affairs of actual towns. Maybe they thought this would complicate the story more, but it would have made the story more real. However, despite these flaws, the film is a welcome addition to the social justice and character transformation genes.
1. How is Steve a person conflicted by his personal background and his vocational aspirations?
2. What do you know about hydraulic fracturing? How do the fears about it’s devastation of the environment lead to a dilemma—of energy independence vs. dependence on foreign oil? Of economic salvation for marginal farmers vs. ruin of their land?
3. How is this also a story about stewardship, as hinted at in the story of Steve’s grandfather’s barn?
4. It has been revealed that major funding for this film came from a group with ties with a Gulf Arab nation: what about the charge that the oil roducers want us to stop fracking because it threatens OPEC sales to America? Do you think the filmmakers are hypocritical in accepting such funding? If you were the filmmaker, how might you be conflicted by accepting the money so that you can finish your film, or rejecting it and not being able to make the film—or at least accepting a long delay until other backers can be found?