Can a Movie Make People Love Fracking Again?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 27 2013 7:18 PM

Frack on Film

Conservatives now have their own movies explaining why fracking is good for just about everyone.

Engineers look at the Cuadrilla shale fracking facility on October 7, 2012 in Preston, Lancashire.
The new documentary FrackNation looks at the truth about the natural gas industry and fracking.

Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

On Tuesday afternoon, around 40 Republican staffers and members of Congress made time for a private movie screening. The feature was FrackNation, a 77-minute search for the truth about the natural gas industry. The director and star, Phelim McAleer, was on hand to accept accolades, take questions, and offer free DVDs to possible apostles. Among them: Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the new chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, who’s accused the media of a “steady pattern of bias on climate change.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

“He was glad to have these points made in an easily digestible way, on screen,” McAleer says. “People know there's something smelly about Gasland, but people are suspicious about how it smells.”

Released in 2010 and nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, Gasland turned the obscure anti-fracking movement into a populist, celebrity-and-Occupy-endorsed cause. Director Josh Fox shamed Washington for passing the “Halliburton loophole” and filmed a House committee falling over itself to defend the energy industry. In 2012, when Fox tried to film a House science hearing, he was sent away in handcuffs. (He didn’t have media credentials.) That had the effect that every bogus-looking arrest has on a journalist. Fox became an even bigger star.

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In Fox’s work, the world is evenly divided into the energy industry and its victims. McAleer—who’s not the only auteur schlepping a pro-fracking movie—divides the world into innocents, dupes, and con men. This inverts the usual order, as seen in Gasland, of an open-minded journalist discovering the depths of corporate greed. In FrackNation and the completely separate TruthLand, both of which will be screened at next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, we’re told that the farmer and the fracker can be friends.

It would be laughable, an unwinnable conservative culture war, if the anti-fracking movement hadn’t stumbled. Late last year Focus Features released Promised Land, a dramatization of the fracking game scripted by the rugged-for-Hollywood trio of Dave Eggers, Matt Damon, and John Krasinski. Damon played Steve Butler, a PR fixer for a natural gas company ordered to make a small town’s plaid-clothed people lease their land and the sweet, sweet shale underneath it. The movie was ridiculous, and it tanked, as any story with a heroic Bruce Springsteen karaoke performance by the rubbery guy from The Office is bound to do. And there was collateral damage. Conservatives, then the mainstream media, asked why the movie was funded in part by Image Nation Abu Dhabi.

Promised Land backfired on the movement and bolstered the pro-frackers’ most populist argument. In FrackNation, McAleer travels to Poland to report on the sad lives of people who rely on Russia for their energy. Vladimir Putin, we learn, is a big fan of anti-fracking scare stories. As we hear him talk about the environmental damage done by American wells, McAleer displays aerial footage of green heartland farmscapes. “Russia is screwed by fracking,” a British journalist tells McAleer. Real America, as seen through his cameras, is ready to lease that land but is halted by unthinking Greens.