As environmental issues become mainstream topics, they are garnering more press, and, as is the case with Hollywood, then becoming screenplay fodder; such is the case with "Promised Land," the new Gus van Sant-directed drama that zeroes-in on a singular down-and-out Pennsylvania town and its struggle, as a place, to address environmental concerns engendered by fracking.

First some background: Hydraulic fracturing (aka, fracking) is a method for extracting petroleum products (natural gas, oil) from rock, and has been in use since the mid-1800s. Basically some type of fluid is pumped into rock formations that hold gas or oil, and the resultant pressure squeezes the gas or oil out. In the 1930s, acids were added to the nonexplosive liquids pumped into rocks to keep fissures from closing, and over the years, various types of fracking liquids have been explored, with oil and natural gas companies looking to maximize how much they could extract. But it wasn't until 1998 that current practices of fracking — using a chemical stew that the process is now known for — became common practice. Today, around 2,500 "products" are added to the liquid that gets injected into rocks, including more than 650 that a 2011 U.S. House of Representatives report cited: "contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants." How much environmental and human health impact these chemicals have is supposed to be nil, since the fracking liquid isn't supposed to come into contact with drinking water aquifers and underwater rivers that bubble up into local lakes. But it looks like these chemicals do indeed make their way out of isolation (which isn't much of a surprise to anyone who has studied geology) and into public water supplies, which is why there has been a strong and growing opposition to the practice. Seen those videos of people setting their tapwater on fire

In the film, which is beautifully shot around Pennsylvania, Matt Damon and Frances McDormand are natural gas company employees looking to buy underground rights to gas deposits in a struggling town that the recent economic downturn has affected. They go door-to-door and are, at first, welcomed, as they bring promise of tens of thousands of dollars to folks who are living paycheck to paycheck. But the high school science teacher (played by a mentally agile Hal Holbrook) and others in town bring up environmental concerns, and the fracking is up for a vote. An environmentalist (John Krasinski, as appealing as ever, with a little tough guy thrown in) rolls into town and a local teacher starts fighting the gas company. (Rosemarie DeWitt is very believeable as a single modern woman who has returned to her beloved hometown.)

While the film certainly presents both sides of the discussion, the writers (Krasinski and Damon from a story by Dave Eggers) and director are on the side of the future health and welfare of the people and the ecosystem being fracked, not that of the gas company's profits. But they do show how for many people living on the edge, selling rights to their land for something like fracking, which may or may not directly affect them, can be a tough call, and they don't judge those people. Animus is mostly reserved for the gas company, though even there, the people working for the 'villian' of the movie (Damon and McDormand) are both incredibly likeable. Interestingly for a movie of this kind, there's a real bit of drama and a surprise ending, but you'll have to check out the film to know what it is. It opens nationwide on Friday, Jan. 4. 

Related post on MNN: What is fracking and is it safe?

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