Promised Land is Matt Damon’s most recent film, and is in fact a project of a rising star, John Krasinski. It also features Francis McDormand and the inimitable Hal Holbrook who once again graces the screen with a beautiful supporting role performance. With this sort of cast you would expect some good performances and these actors do not disappoint. The movie is quite fast-paced and it’s done before you know it (1 hour and 46 minutes later). There is no filler here, no dead spots.
The scene is small farming town Pennsylvania and the issue is fracking— the breaking of the shale to release natural gas from deep underground. The environmental issue is that this process has not infrequently led to the poisoning of the wells and the water supply in the land, and thus the death of the farm. You can look it up online and read about the problems with fracking. There are many.
But the real focus of the movie is not to blow the environmentalist horn. The real focus is on the future of small time family-owned farming in America, and whether, without continued subsidies, it even has a future. A town is asked to vote up or down as to whether to let Global into their community drilling all over the place to find natural gas. The real focus is on the people, and whether people and a traditional healthy American way of life or greed is going to win out. It doesn’t look good for the former.
To give you some perspective, at the beginning of the 20th century, about 66% or more percentage of all Americans lived on farms or in nearby small towns. That is, a majority of us. In 2000 it was about a tenth of that. And what we lose when we lose small town farming communities is a lot. I’m not talking about agri-business, busily subsidized and pork barreled by our dear old Congress (and please could we cut that out of our 2013 budget). I’m talking what was once the only form of farming.
So as it turns out, this film is really about people and their values, and what sort of future we want for our children and grandchildren. Do we want to take the short term gain of drill baby drill, while ruining a good deal of the land, and shutting down farm after farm. Shall we just import all our food from China? Or do we want to support local farmers, homegrown products and the like. Of course its not just that simple, in a global economy, but it is a matter of priorities.
The real kicker is this— if Americans had been willing to support the furniture industry and the textile industry in which I was raised and worked, by paying a little more for American made things, we would still have such industries in America. Instead, we are always suckers for the cheapest thing, the lowest price, even if it constantly undercuts local small businesses everywhere. And of course the same is true about our groceries and farming. When I talk to kids at schools and ask them where food comes from, they almost universally answer— the grocery store. It’s sad.
I give credit to this little film (which interestingly was partly funded by Imagination… a group out of Abu Dabi!!) for raising the right issues, and presenting both sides of the story— the risks and the rewards of fracking. The rewards of course are purely monetary.
The risk is losing a beautiful value-laden way of living, and living close to the land. When I pastored in rural Randolph County N.C. I loved spending time with my hog farmers, turkey farmers, chicken farmers. They were straight shooters, salt of the earth, and would do anything for me or our churches. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had plenty of integrity and honesty and pride in what they did.
Full marks to this film for presenting us with the possibility that even a person fully committed to one side of the issue could have a change of heart when the evidence became clearer. I believe in change. And with my fellow Kentuckian and poet Wendell Berry I believe in farming, and being close to the land. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. And one more thing— if you dance with the Devil, it may be fun for a while, but eventually, you get burned.