Even as camera flashes lit up Broadway and taxis shot uptown, Matt Damon's mind was focused on the small, rural towns that dot the American landscape.
His new film, Promised Land, debuted Tuesday night on Manhattan's Upper West Side, providing a smooth, celebratory push for a project that already has had a stormy path to the big screen thanks to the politics of environmentalism and corporate influence.
Damon, who co-wrote the Gus Van Sant-directed film with co-star John Krasinski, stars as a hotshot salesman for a natural gas procurement company; his job is to get residents in down-on-their-luck rural towns to sign away the rights to drill deep into the shale deposits located underneath their land. It's a controversial practice called fracking, which many scientists believe pollutes local water supplies with various chemicals, killing farmland and endangering the citizenry. Damon's character, Steve Butler, argues that the sometimes-rich contracts are a godsend for the fading heartland but is frustrated when a small Pennsylvania community decides to vote on whether to allow his company's drills into its town. He also is surprised when he learns of some inconvenient truths about the process.
The natural gas industry and conservative organizations have already attacked the film as a liberal polemic (Focus Features CEO James Schamus jokingly thanked the Heritage Foundation in his introduction Tuesday), and while the movie does explain the downside to fracking, Damon's main concern was using the issue as a greater statement about who controls American democracy.
"One thing [natural gas companies] are very worried about is decisions being made at the local level," Damon told The Hollywood Reporter at the premiere. "They really would rather have decisions being made at the state level. And their argument is that it’s far more efficient for them to understand what the regulations are for an entire state rather than try to argue town-to-town about how to do things and have different zoning laws.
"OK, that’s an understandable argument," he added, "but the flip side of it for these local communities is like, 'Are we going to let somebody legislate from the other side of the state what can and can’t be done in our actual backyards?' So you can see each side there, and we’ll see what happens. But this definitely takes the view that we should be in charge of what happens in our communities."
In that sense, the outcome of the deliberation -- which takes twists and unexpected turns -- is not the film's main concern. "The democracy has been hijacked," Damon explained, adding, "it’s not about how they vote, it’s about them taking the vote back."
One of the many big-name New Yorkers in attendance was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer and environmental activist; he was far less circumspect on the issue of drilling for natural gas.
"I think that fracking ultimately is going to be a big mistake in our country," he said to THR. "It has a promise, which is that it will help make us energy-independent, but we have much cheaper ways, more efficient ways, more patriotic ways and more wholesome and safe ways to do that. I think one of the things that the producers of this film wanted to show was the subtle ways that fracking doesn’t just poison water supplies but poisons human communities, it poisons human relationships. It’s not a good thing for our country."
One of the movie's more subtle displays of corporate power comes when Steve and his co-worker Sue (Frances McDormand) shop for flannels and other regional-appropriate clothing at a local store. In order to convince the residents they have their best interests in mind, they must look like them -- even if they're just playing a part.
"Well, we talked with land men who do this, and a lot of them said: ‘Look, the car you drive up in matters. You drive up in a foreign car in some of these places, and they’re not really going to want to talk to you,' " the star recalled. "I talked to one guy who said he always puts on a John Deere hat before he goes out. It’s just something these guys do; they’re salesmen, and they’re trying to make a sale, and they want the people to identify with them as much as possible. So they have little tricks that they do."
Whether the film changes any minds, it's determined to at least open some eyes.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin