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Matt Damon’s “Promised Land” no “China Syndrome”

“Promised Land,” which was written by Matt Damon and the actor John Krasinski (with initial help from Dave Eggers), offers observations on something not often seen in movies–the contrasting morality between caring desperately about your work and simply doing it competently and collecting a paycheck. The movie makes the case for both. This is one of Damon’s best regular-guy performances. Van Sant sets the film in an ordinary country town, with trees and ponds, fields and horses. It’s beautiful, but no more so than thousands of other towns across America, and that’s the point: where do we stop giving up the commonplace riches of the country? – David Denby, The New Yorker

RUSH LIMBUAGH can rest easy. Matt Damon and John Krasinski’s “Promised Land” is not going to impact the public anywhere near what “The China Syndrome” did for nuclear power when it was released. Limbaugh stated this worry last week on his show. As good as the production values are in “Promised Land,” they’re just not driven with the narrative force required to get people up and moving.

Gus Van Zandt, Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who I believe steals the film from Damon, wrote and produced a quiet film with minimal tension that is unlikely to move anyone. Considering the conflict surrounding tracking, as well as the drama that could have been produced inside the framing of Damon’s script, I’d call this a missed opportunity. However, given the experience of the filmmakers involved it’s likely purposeful, though that doesn’t change my view.

Movies like “The China Syndrome” or even “Erin Brockovich” and “Silkwood” have at their core passion to move the public consciousness on environmental issues that are being ignored. What’s missing in Damon’s “Promised Land” is that passion, though I have little doubt it’s why they made the film.

Frances McDormand, who always delivers, has a line that her involvement in the fracking chain is “just a job,” which considering all that’s at stake environmentally for us all, as Denby points out, is a whispered real life issue in the film.

The one plot twist, if you want to call it that, is delicious and also reveals what’s missing in the rest of the film. The conflict inherent in the fracking controversy, the passions it brings out in people, as well as the politics behind it.

Denby’s review is correct as far as it goes. But it also inadvertently unmasks the question of why Damon, Krasinski and Van Zandt didn’t exploit the subject they were covering.

Where do we stop giving up the commonplace riches of the country?

If that’s really the question David Denby thinks is being asked in “Promised Land,” where’s the the urgency and drama in the film that makes it clear to the public what’s at stake for us all? It goes well beyond one community or that corporations set up the scenario to make sure the desired results they want manifest.

Pictures of dead cows aren’t enough.

There is one scene in a school room of Damon’s character illustrating the chemical implications, lighting a plastic farm model on fire. I seriously doubt that’s enough to get the public moving on fracking before it’s too late.

All that said, the film presents a small microcosm of the challenge fracking offers, including what people are up against when it comes to billion dollar corporations, not exactly a new message. Anyone who cares about protecting the environment should support the film by seeing it. It’s just too bad, in my view, that “Promised Land” didn’t go further.

One very interesting note is that one of the film’s main investors is from Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which you see as the opening credits role and is getting quite a bit of attention on the right and in the Beltway.

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