Salesmanship can be more powerful than the truth. Tell people what they want to hear, and they won’t look too hard for something that might contradict their belief. Promised Land tries to come off as a Capra-esque story about a man discovering that he might be doing wrong to the heartland by selling environmentally hazardous natural gas. But fittingly, in a movie about ulterior motives and the easy manipulation of a pliable audience, the makers of Promised Land might have an ulterior motive of their own, which undermines a film that rarely finds any truth.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a consultant for Global, a natural gas company that goes into farming communities, and convinces them to lease their land for drilling. The communities are dying, and Butler and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) are there with a lifeline that could be worth millions of dollars. What seems to be an easy job becomes far more complicated when environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) shows up, and starts preaching the dangers of fracking (the controversial process in which natural gas is taken from the Earth). As Steve starts fighting back, he begins to realize he might be on the wrong side.
At the outset of the film, Steve has a meeting with a Global executive, and dismisses the beliefs of the heartland as “delusional self-mythology”. Promised Land then proceeds to try and uphold the mythology, but instead only pushes forward the delusion of the people, which also includes Steve. Steve grew up in a farming community that died when the local plant shut down. He now works under the delusion that despite the dangers of fracking as well as the massive profits of the natural gas company comparative to what the town receives, he’s still the good guy. Steve may not be completely honest with the towns he visits, but he’s still the savior. But when you have to say, “I’m not a bad guy,” you’re probably doing something bad.
Director Gus Van Sant and writers Damon and Krasinski may want to create the appearance of a grey area in the conflict of how best to save a town, but they inadvertently raise the question of “Is the town worth saving?” With the exception of the town’s wizened elder, genius-engineer-turned-high-school-science-teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), none of the townspeople seem persuaded to do any research on either side. They’re given a convincing speech and a little face-time, and that’s all it takes to get a signature. Even the wisdom of “Google it,” seems a little simplistic when you consider how much pull a company like Global would have on promoting its message online. How great can this community be if they’re so fickle and gullible?
It’s difficult to say the film intends to live in the grey area when its motives are so clear and its metaphors so obvious. Steve literally walks in the shoes of his hard-working grandfather, so there’s never any doubt that Steve will return to the “delusional self-mythology” that simply isn’t feasible in the present day. Eventually, Van Sant, Damon, and Krasinski can’t obfuscate their allegiance, which is to stop fracking. The town will apparently have to find a way to make their economy run on integrity.
While it may have no answer to the difficult question it raises, Promised Land could at least be commended for playing straight to an honest belief in the dangers of fracking. But that honesty becomes seriously questionable when you look at who has financed the movie. One of the production companies is Imagination Abu Dhabi FZ, which is a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media. Abu Dhabi Media is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. The United Arab Emirates is part of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). For a movie about ulterior motives, it’s questionable to have even a superficial link to a company related to a country that has a vested interest in making sure that America can’t rely on its own natural resources.*
The theme of salesmanship-vs-truth hangs heavy over Promised Land, and it overshadows a movie with few bright spots. The conflicts between the characters lack complexity, Dustin feels more like an obstacle than a real person (which is intentional, but still irritating), and Steve’s internal conflict lacks weight because we know his final decision from the moment he dismisses heartland “values”. Only McDormand has a chance to shine since Sue feels fleshed out with a personal life, and a job she has to do, not because of some deep-seated grudge, but because she has a family to support.
Promised Land attempts to embody the well-rounded, likable-yet-nuanced character of Sue, but it ends up as a muddled celebration of self-delusion. The characters believe they’re honorable, the townspeople believe they’re noble, the filmmakers believe they’re politics are unimpeachable, and the film believes it’s a feel-good story about the value of honesty. Nothing could be further from the truth.
*Personally, I have no opinion on fracking. It’s a complicated issue, and I would like to devote more time to researching it before joining the conversation.