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REVIEW: Matt Damon's anti-fracking 'Promised Land' drills too far, comes up empty

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By Christopher Harrop

If you’re going to make a blatantly political film to advance your point of view, you should make sure it’s good.

But sometimes the passion in a passion project is so strong, you lose sight of things.

That’s the case in “Promised Land,” an anti-fracking polemic disguised as a morality tale pitting a salesman for a natural gas company (Matt Damon) and an environmental activist (John Krasinski, “The Office”) against one another for the soul and shale of small-town America.

It all begins with Steve Butler (Damon), on the cusp of a promotion with plenty of money and prestige to go along with it, setting out to gain a foothold in a new area for his company, Global Crosspower Solutions, with his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand).

Watching Butler’s pitch, it’s near-impossible to fault anyone for making the mistake of leasing their land over to Global after hearing the promise of millions upon millions of dollars just waiting to be pulled from the ground beneath them and put directly into the coffers of the local schools.

Steve and Sue are actors, themselves, playing the role of a fellow small-town American to the rural residents they cozy up to at each stop throughout the community. In reality, their flannel get-ups and down-home attire are just costumes, picked up at any random store along the way (In this case, it’s the humorously named “Rob’s Guns, Gas, Guitars and Groceries”).

For all his talk about growing up in the heartland of America, Steve can’t even drive stick.

Still, their shtick works — even when someone reads them right off the bat: “You’re the natural gas people,” some say. The disguise may not do as much to sell as the allure of the money does.

Their trip to canvass the area runs afoul when the local science teacher Frank Yates (played by Hal Holbrook) — who just happens to be a retired Boeing engineer who knows every dirty little detail about hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking —serves as a rabble-rouser to get the folks who haven’t signed their rights away to think twice about doing business with Global.

“Seems to me it should be able to sell itself,” Yates says, dressing down Steve during a community forum on the impending fracking project.

Further complicating things is the arrival of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), who himself tells tales of the wonders of growing up on a farm and fracking — just tinged with loads of anti-fracking ammunition to further put peoples’ minds in doubt as to whether they’re mortgaging their rights for an eventual environmental death sentence.

It’s an exceptionally conventional plot most of the way, penned by Damon and Krasinski, although “Promised Land” also tries to create a romantic rift between Steve and Dustin over the affections of local schoolteacher Alice (played by Rosemarie DeWitt). Perhaps there was more to Dustin’s character in the script than what appeared on screen, but this love triangle really only serves to spur a light-hearted karaoke battle at the local bar, perhaps one of the few scenes in the film that rings true.

The enormity of the setbacks Steve faces while trying to wrap up his sales work is conveyed well enough for us to understand the moral dilemma he is faced with late in the film, but it seems like “Promised Land” never really has time to develop each character. As soon as Krasinski’s Dustin shows up, the codgerly Frank Yates disappears from the screen for what seems like half the film, only to return once Dustin’s storyline has played itself out.

If you’re on the fence about fracking, I don’t think “Promised Land” will change your mind. Despite being an overt and usually relentless hatchet job against billion-dollar drilling conglomerates, it goes looking for storytelling gold in too many directions to really strike an ideological chord. Opponents of fracking, despite seeing their message delivered to moviegoers with the help of some big stars and a big-name director in the way of Gus Van Sant, will be dissatisfied at how sloppily their rhetoric has been translated for film. And pro-drilling folks aren’t likely to give up their money for a ticket to “Promised Land” in the first place.

If “Promised Land” gets anything right, it’s the sincerity and humility with which it presents the townspeople caught in the middle of the fracking debate. But with so many different struggles between the supposed good guys and bad guys playing out — and a shoehorned bit of soul searching on the part of Damon’s character — those good people are mostly an afterthought.

“Promised Land” is rated R for language. Running time: 106 minutes. Two stars out of four.