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November 7, 2013

'Promised Land' fails to uphold promise

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — The most emotional and divisive issue in our area right now is fracking. It has lined up certain business interests and farmers who see an economic nirvana through drilling against residents who see fracking as destroying our quality of life. 

When a movie came out last year with a big-name star that concerned this contentious issue, I thought it would be a big hit at the box office. Instead, it didn’t cause a ripple.

Matt Damon has proven to be a very good actor since his success in writing and starring in “Good Will Hunting.”  He has a list of impressive films on his resume including “Invictus,” “Saving Private Ryan” and the Bourne series. He clearly thought he had found a good story in “Promised Land,” a film that he helped produce, write, and star in.

”Promised Land” is about a large natural gas cooperation’s efforts to convince the farmers of a small town to sign leases allowing the use of their land. Damon plays a representative of the company who, along with a female co-worker, shows up in the dying farming town to promote the idea of saving the area’s economic vitality through natural gas exploration.

Damon’s character is well aware of the downside of drilling but believes the good overrides the bad. His only character flaw seems to be deliberately deceiving farmers about the amount of natural gas available in order to get them to sign cut-rate leases. His co-worker doesn’t care about deceit or the moral arguments to drilling. She just sees the lease signing as a job.

The movie certainly has “promise” when it begins. You get the sense of a dying farming town trying to get by during tough economic times. It’s hard not to feel for the farmers who are barely surviving and seeing the lease deals as a way out of poverty and saving their homesteads. But it’s also clear they don’t know what they’re getting into. The fact that Damon’s character is taking advantage of them makes it all the more galling.

The citizens of the town are split between those that see an economic revival and those that see drilling as a sellout that they will all come to regret. There are the civic leaders and farmers who believe that fracking is perfectly safe and concerned citizens and teachers who question the whole process. Toss in the manipulations of Damon’s character and his co-worker and an environmental activist who enters the fray and we have the making of a genuine drama on our hands.

Unfortunately, Hollywood has a habit of taking a good story and putting its own spin on it. It’s as if filmmakers are rooted in the idea of a “formula” they must follow in order for a movie to be successful. The end result is often pure schmaltz.

Damon’s character is a good guy (how can he not be?) so you assume he is going to be overcome with guilt and be the hero in the end. The female co-worker seems okay but that’s about it. All the other characters lack depth. Even the environmental activist comes across as a total jerk but at least we eventually discover a reason for that. When all is said and done the movie feels bland and contrived.

For people who like Matt Damon or formula movies this flick is definitely one you can sit through. But as a serious look at the fracking controversy it is sorely disappointing. Promised Land is at best a cutesy, formulaic movie that offers no insight into the future of small-town, rural life.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at co.david@4cls.org.