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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Promised Land

PROMISED LAND (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Gus Van Sant, 2012

Matt Damon, who’s become a kind of classic American leftist movie star– a Hank Fonda of the new millennium — has gotten trashed  by some right-wingers (and some moderates and left-wingers as well) for his new film Promised Land. But I think it’s pretty good — a Capraesque tale about a big natural gas corporation trying to get drilling rights to the gas deposits in a Pennsylvania farming town that’s fallen on hard times. Damon, who’s one of our best actors and doesn’t always get the credit he deserves (because, these days, he gets slammed for his politics), plays Steve Bennett, a small town Iowa guy who thinks he understands and relates to these small town Heartland people, and has  a Messianic sense about his job.

Steve, a genuinely nice guy, believes he’s saving the populace from the current economic downturn, rescuing them from the shocks and disappointments  he endured himself.  And, like most small town guys who made it big and later go back to the heartland, he’s just a little full of himself. When he arrives in (the fictitious) McKinley, with his more cynical working partner Sue Thomson (Frances McDormand), he’s not quite prepared for what he meets (though we are): a general store manager who sees right through him; an active, vocal populace; a retired teacher named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) who knows all the facts and figures and the bad side of gas drilling or “fracking“; a wised-up sexy schoolmarm, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt);  and a slick, one-step-ahead environmentalist named Dustin Noble, who beats his time everywhere, including with Alice. Dustin, who may have been named after Dustin Hoffman, is played by John Krasinski, who also co-wrote the script with Damon, from a story by novelist Dave Eggers (the author of the ironically, nudgingly titled “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius“).

In other words, Promised Land is a realistic left-wing social drama about something that might actually happen in the real, everyday world —  instead of, say, about a maniac running from house to house, slashing people to bits, or monsters from hell rising up from the ground and chasing everybody to city hall, or an invasion of extraterrestrials or gangsters on the run staging sensational orgies and bloodbaths. Not that I have anything against movies like that, if they’re done well (and they occasionally are), but I don’t think Damon (or Krasinski) should get points off (or on) simply because they try to make movies that send us messages about issues they care about, or try to create real people, or face real problems, or real horrors. There are things that don’t work in Promised Land, but we’d be better off if there were more movies like it. And I wish there were.

The director Damon chose after deciding not to do it himself, was Gus Van Sant, and that was a wise choice. Van Sant has directed Damon twice before in Damon scripted movis — in Good Will Hunting, the  Oscar-winning realist message drama about social class and intelligence, with Ben Affleck,  and in the wild, weird, arty, long-take  lost-in-the-desert fable Gerry, with Ben’s brother Casey. It’s obvious that Van Sant and Damon click artistically (just as Damon and the Afflecks do).

Visually, Van Sant gets the small town atmosphere, the look and feel and the rhythms of these people, with both naturalism and poetry — and I say that as someone who hails from the Heartland myself, a small town Wisconsin guy. Van Sant, from that hip city Portland, Oregon, gives Promised Land a humanistic style and feel, and though the characters are in some sense, obviously and even preachily conceived, the story works right up to the end, which unfortunately depends on a surprise twist that isn’t adequately set up and, in some ways, doesn‘t make sense.

Damon’s acting though, and his sheer personality, carries a lot of the movie. Like the left-wing Fonda, and like Fonda’s life-long right-wing friend Jimmy Stewart, Damon is an all-American guy with personality and a brain, and a kind of unspoiled boyish quality that beguiles many audiences. That quality shines through Promised Land, a pop-political ballad of a movie about what’s best (and sometimes worst) is us. Enjoy the movie, and Damon, for their best. It may not be a heart-breaking work of staggering genius, but it’s good, solid, admirable. It’s heartland stuff.

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