By Rick Karlin
The Albany Times-Union staff writer
ALBANY — In March 1979, a screen thriller called “The China Syndrome” opened. It starred Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas as TV journalists investigating corner-cutting as well as lethal forms of corporate skulduggery at a California nuclear power plant.
Twelve days after the film debuted, a malfunction at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania caused a partial meltdown. The life-imitates-art moment helped the film become a hit.
The new film “Promised Land” has the potential to tap into the same kind of environmental anxiety that now surrounds the natural gas drilling technique known as hydrofracking.
The drama stars Matt Damon as an energy company “land man,” assigned to secure natural gas leases in a rural community fallen on hard times. The film’s trailer sketches the plot’s moral struggle: the good guy who discovers he’s been doing wrong; a love interest; big business pitted against desperate farmers.
Nuclear power was one of the central environmental issues of the late 1970s; hydrofracking — in which drillers use pressurized water, sand and chemicals to crack gas out of shale — has taken that place in recent years. In New York State, it has eclipsed other environmental concerns as the Department of Environmental Conservation puts the finishing touches on the blueprint that will guide fracking if Gov. Andrew Cuomo approves it.
Due to the polarized atmosphere, it’s no surprise that “Promised Land” — which is slated to open in New York City and Los Angeles before the end of December to qualify for Oscar consideration — became a part of the political narrative months before the first posters were hung.
The film will open in Houston on January 4.
On both sides, the opponents have lined up: Call it Big Drilling vs. Big Hollywood.
“We’re actually very excited that it’s coming out,” said Julia Walsh of Frack Action, one of the leading groups opposing the technique.
The drilling industry counters by describing the film as an ill-considered move by limousine liberals with no expertise in the practice — adding Damon and company to a list that already includes fracking opponents and film figures Robert Redford, Mark Ruffalo and Debra Winger.
“This is Hollywood money,” said John Krohn of Energy In Depth, a trade group that represents the energy industry, including gas developers. Still, “It does have the ability to impact the debate,” he said.
“Science, not scriptwriters, should be deciding the outcome in New York,” said Jim Smith, spokesman for the state Independent Oil and Gas Association, the leading group lobbying for fracking in New York.
Others are taking the criticism farther — into a realm of conspiracy theory that wouldn’t be out of place in, well, a Matt Damon film like “The Bourne Identity.”
Conservative talk show host Roger Hedgecock as well as pro-fracking Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer have pointed out that “Promised Land” was financed by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which is owned by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. They imply that the U.A.E. may be propagandizing against energy development in the U.S. so it keeps buying foreign oil.
“All of this suggests a direct financial interest on the U.A.E.’s part in slowing the development of America’s natural gas industry,” the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Lachlan Markay said in a recent blog entry on the topic.
The U.A.E.-owned movie company, though, has backed plenty of films with no obvious connection to the energy industry, from the superflu drama “Contagion” to the Brendan Fraser family comedy “Furry Vengeance” — although that one concerned woodland animals pushing back against suburban development.
Hydrofracking has already been the subject of several feature documentaries, starting with Josh Fox’s 2010 “Gasland,” a first-person tour of many states where fracking is currently allowed and that alleges the technique has caused environmental damage.
Industry groups have attempted to poke holes in the credibility of “Gasland” — and funded a full-length rebuttal called “Truthland” — but Fox’s film nonetheless garnered an Oscar nomination. He’s currently at work on a sequel, which will likely include footage of the filmmaker being arrested at a congressional hearing held by the House Energy Committee. (One of those in attendance that day, Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, called the Republican chairman’s decision to have Fox hauled away “an overreach.”)
McAleer, who made “No Evil Just Wrong” as a reply to Al Gore’s hit climate change analysis “An Inconvenient Truth,” is currently at work on “FrackNation,” which promoters say “will tell the (positive) truth” about drilling.
As fiction, “Promised Land” won’t have to meet journalistic standards. And with a cast that includes Damon as well as John Krasinski of NBC’s “The Office” (who co-wrote the script), Hal Holbrook and Frances McDormand, the film will likely get more exposure, and could have a broader influence, than a documentary.
Much of the film’s impact, though, will depend on how it does at the box office, says Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, a well-known observer of pop culture.
“Is ‘Promised Land’ going to draw a political line, get people out on picket lines? Probably not — but it could give substance to this word that most people have known as a swear word on ‘Battlestar Galactica,’” said Thompson, referring to the SyFy channel miniseries set in a culture that uses “frack” in a non-energy-related sense.
On the other hand, Thompson said, “Promised Land” could be a box office flop — a common fate for movies released during the busy holiday season.
“It could open, nobody would talk about it and that would be the end of it,” he said.
Moreover, most of those who are engaged in the fracking debate in New York have already chosen sides, says Travis Proulx, spokesman for Environmental Advocates, a leading fracking critic.
“I don’t know that movies change minds,” he said.
Below is a gallery of movies that incorporate energy or energy issues into the plot, main characters or setting.
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