(director: Gus Van Sant; screenwriters: Matt Damon/John Krasinski/story by Dave Eggers; cinematographer: Linus Sandgren; editor: Billy Rich; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Matt Damon (Steve Butler), John Krasinski (Dustin Noble), Frances McDormand (Sue Thomason), Rosemarie DeWitt (Alice), Ken Strunk (Gerry Richards), Scoot McNairy (Jeff Dennon), Titus Welliver (Rob), Hal Holbrook (Frank Yates), Gerri Bumbaugh (Jesse the Bartender); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Chris Moore/Matt Damon/John Krasinski; Focus Features; 2012)

Though the crusading pic against fracking has its heart in the right place, the respectable narrative is too preachy to be entertaining or convincing drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Though the crusading pic against fracking has its heart in the right place, the respectable narrative is too preachy to be either entertaining or convincing drama. Yet it’s not as stiff as it could have been, as it weighs in on the side of those opposing fracking on this controversial hot-button issue that is making waves in the rural parts of the country. Gus Van Sant (“Milk”/”Elephant”/”Gerry”) gets the environmental message across through polemics more than science, as he relates fracking to a scorched earth program without scientifically telling us why that is so. It seems better suited as a cause documentary than a drama, as it unabashedly advocates a position that points out the dangers to the environment and to human health over the natural-gas drilling technique depicted and how corporations are putting the squeeze on economically depressed farming areas by tempting them with money to do what in the long run will not be in their best interest.

It’s based on a story by Dave Eggers, and is scripted by the environmental concerned stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski. The screenplay is intelligent, the acting is solid but not great–as everyone seems to be too self-conscious and acting far from natural. Also, it should be noted that the picwas partly funded by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, representing the United Arab Emirates, the world’s third largest oil exporter, who probably have a vested interest in not encouraging U.S. gas production.

Ambitious, crafty, 38-year-old, former Iowa farm raised Steve Butler (Matt Damon) works as a top consultant salesman for the city-based $9 billion Global energy company, where he’s sent into farming communities all over the country to act folksy and persuade farmers to lease to Global their land for fracking. His associate is the feisty smart cookie Sue (Frances McDormand, who is divorced and raising an adolescent son in Houston and welcomes this high-paying job with no questions asked. In a rural farm community in the fictional town of McKinley (shot in Pennsylvania), Steve and Sue must bribe the top local politico figure (Ken Strunk) to get a leg up on the negotiations and then go door-to-door to pressure the farmers into believing this is a good offer to make them rich when they sign a leasing contract for fracking. They are surprised at times that it’s so easy to close a deal. Opposition comes from the respected wise old geezer retired high school science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), who points out the risks to the community in fracking. When a town vote is announced at a town meeting for permission to carry on fracking, the slick charmer grassroots activist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) appears and launches a one-man anti-Global campaign. Dustin tells about how fracking destroyed his family farm by its waste byproducts spilling over in the ground and causing air/water pollution and killing livestock.

The locals debate the pros and cons of fracking in the bar, the diner and high school gym, as it becomes a battle for the hearts and minds of the public. Also two tepid undeveloped romance stories kick in. The main one is between the pretty 30ish local farm owner elementary school teacher Alice ( Rosemarie DeWitt) being attracted to both Steve and Dustin, while Sue flirts with the friendly but cynical owner of a Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas store (Titus Welliver). It climaxes on the Capra-like town voting after three weeks of Steve’s visit whether or not fracking will be permitted.

What the film does well is capture the naive look, desperation and feel of the old-fashioned idealized rural farm community and how it might be on the endangered extinction list in the near future because of corporate greed and economic bad times. What the film never makes authentic is the gimmicky twisty story, that tries to point out that the Global salesmen are decent folks working for a greedy venal company that’s behind a bad cause.

It tries to be an “Erin Brockovich” type of environmental cause thriller, that has its sympathetic bad guy come around to the truth and show he’s not such a bad guy but an Everyman type who is worthy of going out with the regular nice girl school teacher. But it’s missing the punch and authenticity of that other film to have much of an impact on those not already committed to be anti-fracking.