An Energy Expert’s Review of “Promised Land”

Promised Land Poster 2013

2012, Focus Features

I went to watch Promised Land (2013) last night.  The movie is rich with energy content, and so I will be blogging about it over multiple entries in the coming days/weeks.  But, I wanted to get a brief review and comment out quickly while the movie is fresh on my mind.

First, as a movie, it was really quite good. Well written and well-acted. Plus, there is a persistent subtext of moralistic dilemmas and non-obvious tradeoffs that pull at the viewer’s emotions, all overlaid with a love story.   Matt Damon and Frances McDormand were outstanding together as landmen securing land leases for a drilling company.  Better than Starsky & Hutch, Laverne & Shirley, Cagney & Lacey (Okay, I’m dating myself) or any other pair that jumps to mind.

Second, the movie got a few things wrong (see below), but for the most part, really nailed it on the overall theme that energy production causes tension between our priorities for the economy, environment, and national security.  In particular, domestic energy production can enrich us while solving our national security problems—that comes through loud and clear—but poses risks to our ecosystem (that comes through, too). Despite all the complaints one way or another, the movie really captured this tradeoff well.  It repeatedly reinforced the theme that energy production is a path forward for rural revitalization and economic growth, while also drilling into our heads the fact that energy production isn’t risk-free. In the end, the movie fractured some of the clichés and captured the real essence of the challenge.

Third, the movie got two things wrong. Like most coverage of shale gas production, the environmental risks as portrayed in the movie were overblown.  To be clear, I think that shale production has real risks that must be managed and regulated or else we’ll all be sorry. But at the same time, the portrayals of the risks were too breathless for my taste.  The other thing that caused my eyebrows to go up was the laughable portrayal of the energy industry’s clumsy, overt, and eager attempts at bribing politicians and environmentalists.  The movie implied that the industry’s bribery attempts are so common they have an equation they use to calculate the cost-benefit ratio for bribing politicians and even have an authorized budget for it that they are ready to dispense at a moment’s notice and without much prompting.  Give me a break.   While there is no question that corruption happens in the energy industry (like all industries), this caricature was over the top.

Beyond those three main points, there were many elements in the film that caught my eye.  There is a plot twist at the end, but I will avoid providing a spoiler.

The local hero who is a conscientious objector for shale production is a high school science teacher played by Hal Holbrook.  Two things about him were intriguing to me. First, the character’s name is Yates.  The Yates oil field in West Texas is legendary: it has been in production since the 1920s, has yielded over 1 billion barrels of oil, is one of the largest oilfields in US history, and is the site for many advanced production techniques that are reminiscent of hydraulic fracturing (such as water flooding and chemical injection).  Second, the character earned a PhD from Cornell.  Those who follow the energy industry will recognize Cornell as the home institution for a professor who published papers that were very critical of shale production. (As a side note, those studies have been widely panned.)

  • The glass ceiling for women in the energy industry is alive and well in the film. Early on, a big promotion is granted to a male instead of his female partner.
  • The movie received a lot of financial backing by Abu Dhabi.  I can see more reasons why Abu Dhabi would be wary of U.S. shale gas production than they would be supportive of it.
  • There was a great running joke through the movie about a cheap American-made car that had trouble starting.  The car served as a comic foil for the principal actors, which was refreshing. But it was also symbolic: the car had trouble starting every time the natural gas company was having trouble securing land leases for production, as if to remind us that our cars will have trouble running if we cannot produce energy.  I thought that symbolism was elegant and clever.
  • The gas company’s name “Global Crossing” is reminiscent of the telecommunications company that went famously bankrupt in the early 2000s.
  • There is a nice scene in the middle of the movie where the camera pans across a silhouetted natural gas meter before locking in on a sign protesting the gas companies, raising the question about whether we would have gas to sell through meters if production is halted.
  • Just as George Clooney produced Syriana (2005) (which focused on the national security impacts of energy and starred Matt Damon), Matt Damon produced Promised Land (2013) (which focused on the environmental impacts of energy and starred Matt Damon).  Participant Productions was involved with both. And, both movies created a website to foster community activism around the topics.  Promised Land’s website is and Syriana’s website was originally (which now points to  So the movie is one-part entertainment and one-part activism.

Go see the movie and let us know what you think.


Here are links to a couple other reviews on the fact/fiction of Promised Land…

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