Promised Land is one of the most slanted, devious, vicious, sophisticated pieces of propaganda that I've ever seen. It makes the entire natural gas drilling industry appear to be corrupt, devious, greedy, rapacious and repellent.
Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is introduced as the good guy, earnest, sincere, believing fully in his product – that fracking is safe and profitable to land owners signing leases to Global, Butler's company (with $9 billion in assets), who wants to drill.
Butler sees it as easy money for the land owners who desperately need the cash, and the town, which is in decline and could use the tax revenues. Butler is perceived as a good Boy Scout and as doing a good work. He perceives his offer of Global money to land owners in exchange for signing leases as their “only way out.” He's a smooth talker and is perceived as the “candy man” – giving out checks for nothing more than a signature.
Within the first ten minutes the agenda is revealed: fracking contaminates the water supply so badly that tap water can be set on fire, and people get sick from drinking it. This is shades of the movie Erin Brockovich.
The agenda is promoted by Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), the retired high school science teacher, who challenges Butler publicly who has no response to his charges. Yates calls fracking a “dirty business” with no response from Butler. He claims that Global (i.e., the fracking industry) has its “share of incidents”, that Global is being sued, and that fracking is “far from perfect.” Butler has no response to any of these charges, implying of course that they are true.
Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) enters as the green clean environmentalist to save the people from making a bad decision, using photos of dead cows to raise the spectre of the side effects of fracking.
Butler and his associate, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) attempt to buy off Noble with a large envelope filled with cash, leaving me with a feeling of sleaze – just the impression the film is designed to do.
Noble, however, refuses to go away and is seen in a 4th grade classroom with his dog and pony show “illustrating” the dangers of fracking. When he sets the entire tabletop on fire, the point is made: fracking will kill you and burn up your land.
Butler, who has begun to get interested in Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), finds that she is more interested in Noble. This happens on top of a rained out Town Fair designed to sway townspeople towards Global.
Things then really turn ugly when it turns out that the pictures of the dead cows were faked, which seals the deal for the citizens when they find out that Noble, the clean green environmentalist, was lying all along.
A final confrontation with Noble reveals that Noble was working for Global all along, as a backup in case Butler failed to secure the votes needed by the town to allow Global to do their dreadful deed. He said, “Global leaves nothing to chance.”
Butler then admits everything at the town meeting, leaving citizens in stunned disbelief, and viewers with the intended perception that no one in the industry can be trusted. Butler is fired from Global for blowing the whistle while Sue drives away, content in knowing that “it's just a job and who cares anyway.”
Butler revives his relationship with Alice, Noble fades into the woodwork, Sue flies back to company headquarters where she will likely be promoted for her good work, and the citizens persuaded that fracking is terribly dangerous and risky and that no one in the industry can be trusted.
The message is delivered. It is slick, devious, sly, vicious, slanted and in general one of the most effective pieces of propaganda I've seen in many years.