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.”
“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.
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.
Seriously, it is. McAleer opens the movie with a clip from a public Q&A session—him versus Josh Fox.
“Isn’t it true,” McAleer asks, “there’s reports, decades before fracking started, that there was methane in the water there?”
“Can you identify yourself?” Fox asks. “Where do you come from?” All of a sudden, the affable activist in the Ira Glass glasses looks like he’s hiding something.
He is. McAleer tries, and succeeds, to demolish a defining image of Gasland—a man lighting his tap water on fire. (The scene is copied in Promised Land in an elementary school.) The implication is that fracking released chemicals that introduced methane into the water table. “But Washington and Thomas Paine lit the water of the Millstone River in New Jersey,” McAleer says. This is true. McAleer visits Dimock, Pa., the town where water caught fire, and finds people eager to defend their reputation. One resident shows him the well they use to water plants. “The methane don’t hurt ya, but the iron turns everything red.” Another says he’s “tired of getting on the Internet and reading blogs where people are just lying.”
This reality—the fact that some people really could use those drilling leases—denied Promised Land any real China Syndrome punch. (Spoiler: In the movie, the green activist trying to shut down the drilling turns out to be a fraud.) “If it wasn’t for the natural gas,” one farmer tells McAleer, “we wouldn’t still be farming.” Another farmer, choking back tears, says his farm is “very dear to my heart” and “I have a feeling the gas company can keep it without destroying it.” It’s all so ridiculously keen for the natural gas industry that you understand why McAleer funded it on Kickstarter. He and wife/co-producer Ann McElhinney swore to refuse funds from the energy industry. They’d simply FOIA documents and videos and (in the tensest scene) confront one of the Dimock complainants who tells McAleer that he’s “anti-American” and she has a gun permit.
If they hadn’t used Kickstarter, they might have ended up with something like TruthLand. It’s brought to you by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. It’s also atrocious. A camera crew follows “Shelly, just a Pennsylvania mom,” as she drives across the country interviewing experts. Every single expert leaves her convinced. Every one reminds her of why she despises Josh Fox. He’s “a New York filmmaker with some very misleading so-called facts.” He’s “lives in New York City and makes movies for a living.” When a New York man lights his methane-rich water on fire, she shakes her head and mutters: “Jooooosh Fox!”
That’s no way to convert fracking’s many skeptics. McAleer’s movie wouldn’t soften their hearts, either, because they don’t consider the water-on-fire scene to be the crux of the campaign. “I've actually seen what fracking looks like on the ground,” says the environmental activist Bill McKibben. “The argument that they're not doing anything new is ... uncompelling. But in any case, my work on this issue has mostly been to do with its climate implications.”
McAleer’s movie isn’t about that. It’s about punching a hole through the negatives of Gasland. McKibben actually makes an appearance in the movie, accidentally, when McAleer tries to confront Fox in Los Angeles. (McKibben and Fox are making a joint appearance. McKibben answered a few questions for this article; Fox didn’t.) McAleer identifies himself, follows Fox around, and then—three months after Fox himself was ejected from the Senate—is ordered off the premises. One of McAleer’s crew has her iPhone snatched away and cuts her hand trying to get it back.
No real damage in the long run. The DVDs are circulating through Congress. Next month, after he heads to CPAC, McAleer will be talking about fracking at a conference put on by the International Monetary Fund.