It was just about 90 days ago that I alerted Fools to a coming attraction from filmdom. As I noted at the time, amid a round of impending holiday festivities and excessive bowl watching, Hollywood would release a film entitled "Promised Land," which, while I hadn't seen even a snippet of it, could hardly be expected to enhance the favorability of our nation's energy companies.
I was completely wrong. The film, which stars Hollywood's Matt Damon as an energy company landman whose task is to pay local landowners in rural -- albeit unspecified -- Pennsylvania for the drilling and fracking rights on their property, is sufficiently shallow and devoid of a coherent plot to render attention to any of the excessive spate of recent bowl games time better spent.
The money came from where?
The flick's co-writers and co-stars, Damon and John Krasinski, were also its co-producers, along with another gentlemen named Chris Moore. Herein lies perhaps the film's one claim to true uniqueness: In perhaps the only instance ever of a producer feigning cluelessness about a movie's funding sources, Damon has maintained not to have realized that the government of oil-rich Abu Dhabi had, as the Heritage Foundation has noted, a "direct financial interest" in backing his film. Perhaps he also doesn't realize that the second largest of the United Arab Emirates just might have an ax to grind in thwarting U.S. production of natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing. Fat chance.
If you know even the slightest bit about fracking, I suggest that you give your local cinema a wide berth until "Promised Land" completes its run. Those instructions apparently have already permeated my town, since my spouse, a pair of neighbors, and I comprised a majority of the seven lucky ducks who graced our theater for a Saturday midafternoon showing.
A plot with Swiss cheese holes
In the vapid plot -- in the final analysis, the film is far more about characterization -- Steve Butler (Damon) and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), employees of Global Crosspower Solutions, a multi-billion-dollar energy company, arrive in rural McKinley (Pennsylvania). Their task is to convince as many of the locals as possible to surrender drilling rights on their land in exchange for upfront payments and percentages of any resulting gas profits. Along the way, in an obvious swipe at the ethics of energy companies, the skids are greased by a $30,000 "gift" to the town's supervisor, who then is expected to convince his economically struggling constituents to play ball with Global.
The Global twosome is followed into town by Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an apparent environmentalist, dragging along a tale of how the cattle on his family's Nebraska farm had been felled by the effects of nearby fracking. His job, of course, is to thwart the efforts of Butler and Thomason. In an absurd and convoluted twist, however, Butler learns that Noble's tale of woe is bogus, and that the "environmentalist" is actually another Global employee. The fuzzy denouement is that, once the townsfolk learn of Noble's prevarication, they'll be rendered far more likely to sign on the dotted line with Butler. Weak, no?
When I penned my October piece, I expected "Promised Land" to intensify our nation's existing anti-fracking brouhaha. But having sat through 106 minutes of the film, I'm convinced it'd be as likely to influence viewers against fracking as "Titanic" might have been as an inducement to its audiences to abstain from sea cruises.
None of this is to imply that oil and gas production techniques -- fracking among them -- are risk-free, or that a film that raises the specter of those risks should be verboten. After all, Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) sustained an accident at a Bradford County shale drilling site in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago.
In addition, Canada's Encana (NYSE: ECA ) has been locked in a lengthy dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the possibility that the company's drilling near tiny Pavillion, Wyo., has contaminated the town's groundwater. Further, the Feds recently maintained that an ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) delay in shutting a ruptured Montana pipeline two years ago allowed an extra 1,000 barrels of crude oil to foul the Yellowstone River.
The Foolish bottom line
We won't even go into BP's (NYSE: BP ) 2010 protracted Gulf of Mexico tragedy or Chevron's (NYSE: CVX ) lesser Brazilian mishap. But for the most part, fracking has proven to be both safe and a boon to an otherwise struggling economy. The efforts of Damon et al do absolutely nothing to alter that reality.