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Former Monessen resident McDormand lends talent to 'Promised Land'

| Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, 12:14 a.m.
(From left) Frances McDormand stars as Sue and Matt Damon stars as Steve in Gus Van Sant's PROMISED LAND, a Focus Features release. Credit: Scott Green

One-time Monessen resident Frances McDormand is back on the movie screen in a new film that digs into the fierce national debate over fracking.

The Oscar- and Tony-winning actress, a 1975 graduate of Monessen High School, appears in “Promised Land,” a film whose fictional story revolves around the controversial practice of crushing shale underground to release reserves of natural gas.

Parts of the story were filmed in the Pittsburgh region in April and May, primarily in Avonmore in the Alle-Kiski Valley, and in New Alexandria, Apollo, Delmont, Export, Slate Lick, West Mifflin, Worthington and the Grand Concourse at Station Square in Pittsburgh.

In addition to McDormand, the film stars Matt Damon as a land agent for a global natural-gas company. He travels to the economically depressed fictional town of McKinley, where he deploys an aw-shucks charm to persuade local farmers and other landowners to lease their land for hydraulic fracturing.

While some see the offer as the chance at economic rebirth, an environmental activist played by John Krasinski (“The Office”) begins rallying residents against the idea. The two antagonists also compete for the affections of a local schoolteacher played by Rosemarie DeWitt.

McDormand, who lives in New York, will long be remembered for her 1996 Academy Award-winning performance as Marge, the pregnant police chief in “Fargo.” She won a Tony award last year for her work in the Broadway play “Good People.”

She also received best supporting actress nominations for the movies “Mississippi Burning” in 1988, “Almost Famous” in 2000, and “North Country” in 2005.

In “Promised Land,” she play's Damon's associate.

Damon and Krasinski co-wrote the screenplay. The director of the film is Gus Van Sant, who directed Damon in “Good Will Hunting.”

Nearly 4,000 active well permits have been issued in Pennsylvania since the first commercial well was drilled in the Marcellus shale formation in 2004 in Westland, Washington County. Industry estimates say a typical well could generate $4 million for landowners over its life.

While the boom has sparked Jed Clampett fantasies for some landowners, environmentalists and health officials say not enough research has been done on the potential hazards, such as groundwater contamination.

“Promised Land” concentrates on another aspect of the drilling boom — the battle for hearts and minds as gas companies seek to lease land for drilling while environmentalists warn of the perils of punching a bunch of holes in the ground. Bewildered landowners, meanwhile, are left to sort out the competing claims and counterclaims.

It's potentially fertile territory. In real life, drilling companies injected millions of dollars into moribund local economies, transforming sleepy villages in Pennsylvania and other states into boomtowns almost overnight. But the industry also sowed division, pitting neighbor against neighbor as some residents complained of ruined water wells and other environmental degradation. Many others, judging by recent public opinion surveys, heralded the prosperity that drilling creates and the abundant homegrown energy it produces.

Even here, though, the movie seeks to entertain more than enlighten, with an implausible plot twist undermining what could have been a realistic portrayal of life as it is really lived in the gas fields.

Damon's character, Steve Butler, is tasked with getting residents to sign on the dotted line, promising them they'll become instant millionaires once the gas starts flowing from the shale underneath their land. Krasinki's character, Dustin Noble, is determined to convince townsfolk they don't want what the driller is selling.

Damon's character repeatedly points out that drilling has brought new life to struggling towns, calls U.S. reliance on foreign sources of energy “insane,” and defends fracking as a technology with a proven track record of safety. And he seems to believe it himself, at least initially.

But the film leaves little doubt as to where its sympathies lie.

“Nobody's going to be disingenuous here. If you were expecting a pro-fracking movie from Matt Damon, you were probably living in an alternate universe,” Focus Features CEO James Schamus said.

But he insisted that “Promised Land” ultimately is not a movie about a highly technical process in which drillers use water, sand and chemicals to break apart gas-bearing shale rock — and it should not be judged by that standard.

“The filmmakers didn't necessarily set out to make, nor did they make, some kind of civics lesson or propaganda movie about fracking,” Schamus said.

Rather, he said, the movie is a Frank Capra-style yarn about “working-class identity, about aspiration, about money and what it does to you,” with fracking as the vehicle that propels the story and a healthy dose of corporate villainy.

Krasinski says he and Damon tried to avoid too much of a political message. “We really wanted to tell a story about community, about these small towns that are going through very real situations right now, especially with the economic situation as it is,” he told the Associated Press.

Yet industry groups and environmental activists alike see “Promised Land” very much as a message film about the perils of the gas boom, and are reacting accordingly.

Drillers — who mounted a furious rebuttal of “Gasland,” the 2010 award-winning, anti-drilling HBO documentary — began pushing back against “Promised Land” months ago while simultaneously noting that it is indeed a work of fiction.

“We're taking it seriously, obviously, and we'll be ready to engage folks who may have questions about the development process as a result of the film. But I'm not sure anyone's losing a lot of sleep over it at this point,” Chris Tucker of Energy In Depth, an industry public relations group, responded in an email.

“They may have Matt Damon and Jim from ‘The Office' on their side, but we've got the facts, the science, the consensus of regulators, and a 65-year track record of performance and safety on ours. So we think that's a pretty fair fight.”

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, plans to run ads in 75 percent of Pennsylvania's movie theaters, encouraging “Promised Land” audiences to visit a website that it set up earlier this year to answer questions about shale gas.

“It's difficult to fact-check a work of fiction, so I don't know if we're going to be able to do that any more than we can fact-check ‘Batman,' ” said spokesman Steve Forde. “But certainly shale gas development is generating discussion around dinner tables, it's an important discussion to have, and that's the angle we are looking at.”

Environmentalists, meantime, are positively giddy over the film's depiction of an industry they view as dangerous to land, water, air and people. They are planning their own campaign around “Promised Land,” including the distribution of anti-drilling leaflets, postcards and petitions to audiences leaving theaters.

Rebecca Roter, a Pennsylvania activist who has screened the film, said, “This is a precious opportunity to engage America on a national level about where their cheap natural gas energy is coming from and the associated human costs.”

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