Touching and believable.
Matt Damon was supposed to debut as director of this lighthearted romp onto the mythical Midwest but ran out of time and had to call in Gus Van Sant. It is interesting to think of how the film would have turned out with Damon at the helm. In any event, he does a great job in the lead role of Steve Butler, corporate sales golden boy for a large, nebulous natural gas exploitation conglomerate.
Butler is on the road with Sue (Francis McDormand) and they are out for bear. The rural town of McKinley waits. McKinley, although it appears to be in the middle of nowhere, is the “key” to the Midwest. If the high-powered duo can make it in McKinley, they can make it anywhere. So the story goes.
This is the first of several suspensions of disbelief viewers must accomplish before they can enjoy this attractively filmed and excellently produced movie. No, there is probably not any particular “key to the Midwest.” The Midwest is huge, in spite of what many east-coasters might think, and it is every man and woman for himself or herself.
The bogeyman is fracking, the method of breaking up the earth’s crust several thousand feet down to release natural gas. The gas is pumped to the surface and distributed across America. In America, natural gas is the next oil. The scientists tell us we have enough natural gas to be energy sufficient for the next 125 years.
In fact, we have greater fossil fuel reserves than Saudi Arabia. But only if we use fracking to get it. Like all mining and fossil fuel extraction, fracking has had some messy accidents, but no more or less messy than the litany of oil and coal disasters recorded over the last 300 years. Regardless of that history, the plot is that Steve and Sue must sell McKinley on something that brings fast money, but will decimate their land someday.
The first people they meet in the town are Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) and Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), two self-appointed defenders of the land. Yates is a schoolteacher who just happens to have a doctorate in Science from MIT, or some such thing. Quiet and unassuming, his word is taken for the Holy Grail even when he does not say much of any scientific consequence. OK, you just have to see the old guy to love him. John Krasinski, on the other hand, has the best part in the film. He is a gutsy young upstart that takes on the two corporate sappers on their own ground.
Romance and skullduggery ensue and although some hearts are broken, no heads are. The result is an attractive piece of eye candy that steers clear of the real issues and tries to pit American corporations against the American people. If you cannot get with this program, there might not be much in this film for you. All of the lead actors do a great job and it is a realistic (OK, exaggerated) look at the Midwest.
Hopefully, viewers see it as a film about corporations versus the public welfare, because on that level it is at least semi-accurate. As an essay on fracking, it is, well, fractured. It would have been as good a film, or maybe better, if Damon had played a mortgage broker offering low interest mortgages to the town’s people with variable interest rates which he knew would go up, bankrupting them, as George Bush’s buddies did six years ago. That is something we can all agree on.
The fact is (as Steve Butler said) fracking has been going on for fifty years with little environmental damage. The biggest damage we are likely to see from it is the wide scale expansion of fossil fuel burning to generate electricity and heat our homes, as opposed to renewable resources. The result will be more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more climate change, and Hurricane Sandy Senior paying us a visit.
This is an important issue, but it is much too much for a conventional, mainstream fiction film to handle, and this film did not come close to handling it.
It is not a question of whether fracking has a risk; it is a question of the risks of fracking versus the risks of coal mining, oil drilling and/or nuclear power plants. If dead cows are a problem, consider dead birds, fish and, yes, people.
Beautifully filmed outside Pittsburg in Avenmore, Pennsylvania by Linus Sandgren. Original Music by four time Oscar nominee Danny Elfman.
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Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: John Krasinski and Matt Damon (screenplay) based on a story by Dave Eggers
Starring: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand and John Krasinski
Release Date: December 28, 2012
MPAA: Rate R for language
Run Time: 106 minutes