Steffy: `Promised Land’ courts controversy but settles for even-handed mediocrity

“Promised Land” doesn’t live up to its promise.

The motion picture, which opens in Houston on Friday, stars Matt Damon as a natural gas company landman buying up leases in rural Pennsylvania. It’s supposed to explore the controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing.

Across the country, the shale drilling boom has pitted energy companies against environmentalists, often with landowners caught in the middle. The potential for conflict involves energy needs, national security and environmental issues.

“It’s clearly a part of the national dialogue,” said Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. “Hollywood and others have taken note. While ‘Promised Land’ is a fictional story with fictional characters, it’s still a wonderful topic.”

The oil industry has been wary of the film, in part because hydraulic fracturing didn’t fare too kindly in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Gasland.”

The industry, though, has nothing to fear from “Promised Land.” The film goes painfully out of its way in portraying Damon’s character, Steve Butler, as sympathetic.

Butler tells his boss early in the film that he grew up on a farm near a small Iowa town that died after the local Caterpillar plant shut down. He can relate to the people he’s now signing up for leases, don’t you see, even if he’s low-balling them on the price.

“I’m not selling natural gas,” he says. “I’m selling them a way out.”

Butler shows up in rural western Pennsylvania with the goal of quickly securing mineral leases so his company can begin hydraulic fracturing – the process of drilling into shale formations and injecting water, sand and chemicals to fracture the rock and release natural gas.

His company is supposedly in a race with unseen competitors who never show up. Perhaps they noticed the slump in natural gas prices and abandoned their efforts.

Butler promises confused land owners they can make “millions,” which leads to a detail that will annoy people in the energy business. Throughout the movie, potential reserves are referred to by dollar amounts, not volume such as million cubic feet. Apparently, Damon’s character doesn’t understand the price fluctuations in commodity markets.

Just about the time the audience believes Butler is sincere, he meets skepticism in the form of Hal Holbrook as high school math teacher and retired Boeing engineer Frank Yates.

Yates confronts Butler by saying: “This issue is more complicated than it seems.”

Enter John Krasinksi of “The Office” fame, as an environmentalist – named Dustin Noble no less – who wants to single-handedly cast doubt on Butler’s claims. Suddenly, everything Butler said is suspect. Is he a villain after all?

Noble goes on to give a factually inaccurate description of fracking to schoolchildren – complete with a model farm engulfed by real flames – and plasters the town with anti-company placards.

The movie sets up a struggle between the environmentalist and the landman for the soul of the town. Both are flawed individuals who claim to have pure motives, and the townspeople are split in their views.

Porter, who told me he hasn’t yet seen the film but plans to, said the industry hopes it might dispel some of the mis-information surrounding fracking and help the public become better informed.

That’s doubtful. While the energy industry has done a poor job of addressing public concerns about fracking, this movie does little to expand public understanding. It offers realistic glimpses of how the energy industry downplays the public’s fracking concerns and how environmentalists often resort to scare tactics, and it avoids the factual vacuity of “Gasland,” but it tries so hard to be evenhanded that it winds up devoid of a point of view.

Instead, the screenwriters – Damon and Krasinski – opt for a surprise plot twist that you won’t see coming because it’s so nonsensical. In fact, it’s so contrived that environmentalists and energy company executives alike will no doubt share a laugh.

I have another, more personal quibble. As a native of rural Pennsylvania and longtime Texan, I was offended on two levels that all the uneducated townsfolk had Texas accents.

As a moviegoer, you may enjoy the banter between Damon and Frances McDormand as his assistant, but these superficial charms aren’t enough to make it a good movie.

In the end, “Promised Land” is a mediocre film that uses fracking as a backdrop, but it neither illuminates nor distorts the issue. It adds about as much to the fracking debate as “There Will Be Blood” added to the discussion of Arctic drilling.