Gus Van Sant has called “Promised Land” his attempt at Capra, which is a noble thing to aim for – and it has certainly been largely MIA in today’s cinema. But his film is hardly “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a truly inspiring extolling of the virtues of the common American. Even when you factor in adjusting the tale for our grayer, more morally relativistic culture, it still falls well short.
“Promised Land” aims for pro-small town goodness but winds up being mostly anti-corporate. Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both the stars and writers of the film, spend most of their efforts vilifying the businessmen. The homely townspeople, on the other hand, merely speak in vaguely familiar talking points that make them really only function for the sake of the narrative.
And I think that’s a lost opportunity for the movie to really make a great case against natural gas fracking. As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb postulated in “Inception,” positive emotion trumps the negative every time. Maybe if we cared more for the well-being this tiny agrarian Pennsylvania town, we would come out of the movie and call our Congressman. But all that Damon and Krasinski convince us is that businessmen are vile leeches who will go to any lengths possible to suck all the natural gas out of the ground – with as much cost to the environment as necessary to provide little cost to them.
Eventually, I believe we will look back at “Promised Land” as an interesting relic in the ongoing saga of the United States’ quest for energy independence and climate control. The film lands at a critical nexus in our culture, where it makes sense to revive the economy and decrease our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels by fracking the natural gas underneath our own soil. Yet the process is so unrefined at the moment that it can cause vast environmental damage. You know, just never mind what it does to social capital because Damon and Krasinski are only seeing green – the color of money and the color of the environment.
But they make a mild and familiar argument within a generic framework to convey their message. Perhaps their passion would have been best channeled into a documentary. Although non-fiction films rarely reach large audiences, those movies can be as polemical as they want because that’s often what they are designed to be. (For an example of how they could have frightened you with the horrifying truth, look to “Gasland.”) What they settled on in “Promised Land” just feels like preaching to the converted; I don’t think it has the narrative or emotional strength to create any new believers. C+ /