He’s a Harvard guy – a Harvard dropout, to be specific. He’s also an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, you no doubt remember, from his first film with Gus Van Sant, “Good Will Hunting,” co-starring his co-writer and childhood friend Ben Affleck.
So anyone expecting Matt Damon to be little more than a hapless sitcom dad a la “We Bought a Zoo” or an emotionless action cipher a la Jason Bourne, is barking up the wrong showcase. Those who want him to be little more than a cutie-pie performing minor career stretches are going to have major problems with “Promised Land.”
I’m not one of them. Quite frankly, I admire his generation of politicized actors enormously – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, etc. They’ve done something with their politics no other Hollywood generation before them has done with equivalent success. They haven’t just demonstrated for their politics or worn them on their sleeves or contributed time and money to their causes, they’ve actively put their moviemaking lives behind their politics.
“Promised Land” for those who don’t know, is Damon’s “fracking” movie – a fiction based on a story by Dave Eggers and co-written by Damon and his co-star John Krasinski. (Damon’s old buddy Affleck was off making “Argo,” certain to be an Oscar nomination finalist shortly.) Damon plays a deeply conflicted hireling for an energy conglomerate, buying up Marcellus Shale properties for the hugely controversial practice of fracking (wherein natural gas is liberated for an energy-gobbling world from far beneath the earth’s surface but not without conspicuous and frequent environmental damage – and worse). He and Frances McDormand drive into town with bulging pockets and represent the company. They stop at the local store selling “guns, groceries, guitars and gas” to acquire the proper locally fashionable flannel shirts and boots.
It’s assumed the two of them will land the town in the energy Goliath’s win column. All seems to be a lock for Big Energy until they run afoul of the local contingent led by Hal Holbrook, as a high school science teacher with M.I.T. and a long stint with Boeing management bulging out of his dossier. No countrified rube is he. He considers himself lucky “to be old enough to have a shot at dying with my dignity.”
His environmental claque is suddenly joined by an environmental organizer played by Krasinski, whose enormous natural charm and know-how compounds all problems considerably. It’s no longer a foregone conclusion that this town will be chalked up to the frackers’ win column.
This is an uncommonly well-written movie, from roadhouse habitues hitting on women by rhetorically asking them “what’s the point of having good hair if you don’t sing in public.” (A pretty good pickup line on open-mic night, you must admit.) The joint is called Buddy’s Place. It’s where the locals go to drink beer, sing Springsteen songs to each other and find companions for the evening.
Before the film is over, it has fought fracking. And allowed the hero to find his soul. So that fracking can look bad. And Damon’s generation of Hollywood actors can look good with another political score – without, in any way, making a boring movie.
Not bad that, not bad at all.
Starring: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt
Director: Gus Van Sant
Running time: 106 minutes
Rating: R for language
The Lowdown: A small farming community fights back against Big Energy and fracking.