Those nursing the suspicion that Hollywood politics are awash in knee-jerk liberalism may well have their cynicism validated by “FrackNation,” a counterargument to the outcry over the natural-gas retrieval process known as “fracking” recently explored in Gus Van Sant’s feature “Promised Land.” But the more thoughtful and politics-oriented auds targeted by this well-reasoned film from helmers Phelim McAleer, Ann McElhinney and Magdalena Segieda will find plenty to chew over, including the possibility that perhaps all is not as simple as it seems in the world of nonrenewable energy.
Irish journalist McAleer narrates and serves as host to this briskly paced, low-budget and mischievous pic, presented as a rebuttal to Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated “Gasland,” a docu that has been instrumental in building political resistance to a process seen by different factions as a godsend and an antidote to Big Oil. Fox is clearly depicted as the villain in “FrackNation,” from a “Gasland” post-screening Q&A where Fox refuses to answer McAleer’s simple questions, to a scene at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum where Fox literally flees the camera.
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McAleer makes a good case against Fox’s movie. From the farmers of the Delaware River Basin, for whom fracking hysteria has meant a loss of crucial income, to experts like James Delingpole, who somehow makes a fairly reasoned case that the anti-fracking people are the tools of Russian President Vladimir Putin (for whom the natural-gas market provides political leverage), most of the voices entertained here make a good deal of sense. But the filmmakers might have done well to address the animosity so many Americans feel toward the energy business in general.
From the Exxon-Valdez and BP oil spills to the Trojan horse of wind turbines, the sense among the anti-fracking constituency is that if something can go wrong, it will eventually, either through cost-cutting or lack of oversight. “FrackNation” doesn’t actually claim that fracturing — the process of extracting gas by drilling through shale — is utterly mistake-proof. But in striving to counter the sometimes frenzied positions taken against the process, the docu becomes a promotional tool for it, a role it assumes a bit too eagerly.
The helmers provide just the right amount of technical info and jargon to give their findings scientific weight (at least for the lay-viewer), but it’s the human stories that give the film a pulse. The farm families interviewed, in such struggling areas as Sullivan County, N.Y., and western Pennsylvania, are for the most part firmly in support of the gas companies; without their money, one farmer says, the farms might go out of business, resulting in increased housing construction and a more stressed-out environment.
Although McAleer debunks the famous “Gasland” scene of a fracking “victim” setting his tap water on fire (the docu establishes that methane has always been in the drinking water of some of these rural communities), a few of those interviewed maintain they’ve been victimized by fracking, like Julie and Craig Sautner, who react angrily to EPA officials who declare their water safe, and to McAleer when he asks to test their water.
All does not flow smoothly in “FrackNation”: Some of the generally fine music by Boris Zelkin and Deeji Mincey is laid on a bit thick. And McAleer’s sandbagging of Carol Collier, executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, seems pointless, except as an effort to get an anti-fracking official to look like she’s got something to hide.
Tech credits are good, notably the editing by Jeff Hawkins.