Friday, January 11, 2013

Promised Land (2012)

The Promise of Matt Damon

Matt Damon is one of those rare species that manages to pick appropriate material to showcase his talent. Sean Penn is a better actor than his body of work; the opposite might be said of Damon. His films give him a broader range than one might imagine. His matinee idol quality (Bourne Identity series/Bagger Vance/Saving Private Ryan) fails to obscure his gravitas (Syriana/ The Green Zone/ The Departed/The Good Shepard).  Off screen Damon maintains a solidly progressive political track record culminating in being the voice over for the documentary “Inside Job” which chronicled the 2008 financial debacle . Even if you’re a reactionary; it’s hard not to like the guy. His comity glows whether he is fiercely debating a reporter over teacher’s pay or signing autographs to exuberant fans.   He has a self-depreciating “everyman” quality that belies a dogged determination.  It has been over a decade and a half since he broke onto the scene with “Good Will Hunting” and yet he has remained “on top”.  That doesn’t happen by accident. Mr. Damon has now decided to reprise working with the director, Gus Van Sant, who guided his breakthrough project. It is an interesting combo as they both share the same social concerns and have chosen to base this feature around a contentious political issue: oil shale fracking.

Van Sant has a jaundiced view of the wholesome American dream.   “To Die For” is based around a woman who seduces teenagers to murder her husband who is blocking her dreams of stardom. “Last Days” is a fictional account of the suicide of a rock star based on Kurt Kobain’s final week. “Elephant” is a meditation on the Columbine massacre. Van Sant also had the courage to tell the story of the gay political pioneer Harvey Milk who was assassinated by a deluded blue collar hero.  The edgy subject matter never matches the filmmaking. “Milk” was milquetoast (my review: http://thebettertruth.blogspot.com/2009/01/milktoast-heroes-my-grandmother-was.html). “My Own Private Idaho” and “Drugstore Cowboy”, once again dark heartland tales, established a meandering, listless conventional story-telling that permeates his work. Stripping away the daring subject matter, one is left with forgettable conventional features.  The idea of Van Sant teaming up with Damon on a hot button topic conjured up the prospect of an uninspired preachy rant - however much one may agree with the perils of Natural Gas Drilling.  In the end “Promised Land” surprises. Damon manages to pull Van Sant from his gloominess and delivers a solid romantic comedy. Who woulda thought?

The key to the success of “Promised Land” is channeling the “off screen” amiability of Matt Damon. Here is an example of the spirit of the man. Most movie stars cringe at being accused of being gay.  It has been viewed, even in this day, as potential box office poison. Here is Damon’s response to accusations that he was romantically involved with Ben Affleck:

“I never denied those rumors because I was offended and didn’t want to offend my friends who were gay, as if being gay were some kind of f--king disease. It put me in a weird position in that sense.”

That response deserves an academy award for magnanimity given the fact that most stars choose to curse the reporter posing the question. Van Sant and Damon’s very open political and environmental beliefs one might have expected “Promised Land” to be a screed against BIG ENERGY. It does deliver that message - but it also surprises and draws the audience in with the acknowledgment that the dividing line between good and evil is more of a circle.

The central character in this Dave Egger’s story is a disillusioned Iowa farm boy turned huckster of big gas fracking. (Note: Damon and another star John Krasinski wrote the screenplay) The backstory is critical as the protagonist’s embrace of corporate power is rooted in a bitter acknowledgment the inevitable reach of modern corporations. One such company destroyed his beloved hometown by closing down a manufacturing facility. Matt Damon’s character isn’t a true believer but someone who lives his life in a Freudian reaction formation. To quote wikipedia:

In psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defensive process (defense mechanism) in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions and impulses are mastered by exaggeration (hypertrophy) of the directly opposing tendency

In other words Matt is an effective salesman because he believes this is the ONLY way that small farmers can embrace the future. In his mind there is NO choice but to join the winning side - so he does - WITH GUSTO. His dressing in costume and practicing his “down homeness” matches his scoring points with the home office by low-balling the “marks”. It is all an embrace of the mirror image of the values of the heartland: he’s an honest, hardworking bullshit-artist.... and you like him. Ditto for his partner (Francis McDormand), a beleaguered single mother wistfully watching her son grow up on Skype while she struggles to bring home the bacon.  She is less convinced of “the mission” but all she has to do is look across the table at the desperate farmers to know that it’s better to be a hammer than a nail.  Interestingly Damon, in order to suppress his pity, erupts with rage against those trying to ignore the onslaught of big business.  All the characters who have post-highschool education are finely drawn:  John Krasinski is wonderful as the Bendict Arnold environmentalist as is Hal Holbrook as the retired engineer/science teacher.  In the end you get what makes them tick delivered in crisp credible dialogue and gesture.  The local yokels fail to inspire. They are incarnations of how college people view the rural underclass.  Their words might inspire but the quality of expression is devoid of the taciturn, hard worn brevity of many farmers. Can anyone imagine the farmer in Grant Wood’s American Gothic giving a speech? All you have to know is the clenched pitchfork - direct all questions to his spouse. Note: Mr. Wood changed her role to “daughter” after depression era audiences were uncomfortable with husband having a wife half his age. The old man in the painting is remaining silent.

In the end it is the faceless company playing games with Damon’s integrity forces our anti-hero to be the real deal. He’ll play the game... to a point.  Krasinki and Mcdormand are bewildered.  We’re all getting paid in the end and we win.... so who cares?  But the beauty of this set-piece is that Damon does.  The closing scene shows him channeling the shame of John Proctor in the Crucible. The dialogue fails to match Arthur Miller’s words of the farmer from Salem MA; but one can feel Damon channeling the pathos of the American Classic:  “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”  In a sense this film fails to be about Natural Gas as much as the hopelessness of good people forced to do bad for all the good/wrong reasons. Matt gives us the unvarnished truth about fracking: You might get paid; but the cost could be your land and heritage.  The movie cleverly recognizes that even good people on both sides of a sale will make the wrong decision; but it’s THEIR career or land and, more importantly, THEIR choice. We are in a soapbox-free zone.

As a coda I would like to mention an article I saw in the Daily Mail.  It is strange that I should quote a newspaper dedicated to tearing apart the subject’s integrity but that makes the headline all the more poignant:

Friday, Jan 11 2013

'I couldn't leave them': Matt Damon clasps daughter tight... as he reveals he gave up director role to be with his four children


I believe him. Maybe I’m a fool and this is an elaborate PR campaign to boost the “goodness” of the film - but I don’t think so. Boxoffice fails to rule in this case. Damon will jump at the chance to be in the blockbusters.... but it seems merely a platform for quieter, more important work.  That is a promise well worth keeping.

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