THE BLOG
12/20/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Matt Damon: Star Power

Matt Damon's yet to be released film, Promised Land, has already been dismissed as left-wing propaganda by two prominent conservative sources, Fox News and the Heritage Foundation. Thus, it's a good bet that every right-wing media outlet from here to Timbuktu will also denounce the movie when it debuts in January.

What has the conservative "intelligentsia" up in arms? Damon's film chronicles the story of an oil industry employee assigned to visit a quiet Pennsylvania farming community in order to buy up land for shale gas drilling. As he proceeds, the company representative (played by Damon) has some second thoughts about industry's impact on the area's natural beauty and general ambiance.

Most critics who have seen a preview say that the film does not render a definitive judgment on the oil company's intentions, but does appear to be advocating the wisdom of a pause to reflect on the pros and cons of proceeding with the land sales.

Some might indelicately articulate the question raised by the Damon film as "is cashing in for big bucks by opening up one's land to drilling worth risking the health of local residents and the surrounding environment? Does the fracking process that extracts a wealth of natural gas from shale deposits have a dark side?"

In a sense, the answers make little difference to hardcore conservatives because the controversy plays right into one of their favorite narratives, namely that Hollywood is a bastion for liberal causes, especially broadsides against corporate America (even though Hollywood is largely an appendage of corporate America). Conservatives take delight in branding Hollywood as a mouthpiece for environmentalists who want to shackle the marketplace and individual freedom with regulation and socialist-style big government. But the right wing's rants against perceived cinematic demons risks it being typed as a mouthpiece in its own right, a mouthpiece for an energy industry that is a major political ally.

This loyalty to the oil and gas industry makes conservatives especially sensitive to even a hint of criticism of fracking in Damon's film, despite the fact that the shale extraction process's pollution threat remains a matter of controversy in the real world.

Promised Land
is not the first environmental film that the right wing has condemned as a partisan propagandistic assault on corporate America. There have been courtroom dramas culminating in the conviction of industrial polluters, A Civil Action with John Travolta and Erin Brockovich with Julia Roberts being cases in point. Even cinematic fantasies have evoked protest. WALL-E, a feature-length cartoon depicting a lovesick robot cleaning up the materialistic mess of a humanity exiled from Earth for its wasteful habits drove conservatives bonkers. So did Fern Gully, a cartoon portraying industry's rapacious leveling of an idyllic rain forest. And then there was the mythical blockbuster Avatar in which an alien race defends its planet of great natural beauty against the bulldozers of invading corporate Homo sapiens.

What is the right wing really worried about? Perhaps they fear they won't prevail when these films pose a choice between industrial exploitation of the environment for maximum profit, regardless of the consequences, versus protecting the Earth's natural resources in perpetuity. Or maybe they are just uneasy at the thought that these films might leave the audience with the impression that unrestrained material consumption can corrupt the human spirit.

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