The food isn’t safe to eat, the environment is wrecked, the educational system is a mess, the economy will continue to fail, we’re in a cycle of never-ending war, and the world as we know it is pretty much on the edge of a collapse. Now we have Josh Fox’s Gasland, where we discover that natural grass drilling is contaminating our water. It’s hard to overstate the value of fictional escapism these days; if all we watched was non-fiction, we’d hide under the bed.
Fox approaches his subject from a uniquely personal point of view: he became interested in natural gas when he was offered $100,000 to lease his family’s land in Pennsylvanian for the purpose of gas drilling. The process that the gas companies use is hydraulic fracturing—“fracking,” for short—wherein a fracturing fluid is pumped deep into underground rock, causing the formation to crack and release natural gas. Except, funny thing, the chemicals in that fluid have a way of getting into the water, especially the wells that farms and small towns rely on in the less-populated areas that lend themselves to drilling.
Fox calmly lays out how fracking works, how the companies who do it duck environmental regulation (hydraulic fracturing was deemed exempt from the conditions of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Dick Cheney’s Energy Policy Act of 2005), and how it’s dangerous. Fox is a soft-spoken guy, gentle-voiced; his narration is tentative, almost hesitant in places. He doesn’t come on like a crusader, but like a curious (though emotionally involved) bystander.
So he goes on the road. Bold, white on black titles fill the frame, organizing his lengthy journey to investigate the process of fracking. He starts in Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the residents can do a neat trick with their water: they can set it on fire, right out of the tap. “It’s not supposed to do that,” Fox muses, a master of understatement.
Fox’s film is wide-ranging but never disorganized. He talks to Weston Wilson, an EPA whistleblower. He explains the “anatomy of a gas well,” walking through the process. He interviews Dr. Theo Colburn, an activist who seems incapable of hearing any more nonsense. He sits down with John Hanger, the seemingly ineffectual secretary of the Pennsylvania EPA (“I have to make trade-offs,” he explains). He sits in on a Washington subcommittee hearing on fracking, with gas company executives testifying to the safety of the process and the exaggeration of media reports; it’s the closest he gets to interviewing any of them.
Most of all, though, he drives—through Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Texas, Arkansas, through the “gaslands” of the title, at one point donning a breathing mask because the gas in the air is so thick. And he talks to people, a flurry of faces, family after family, all victims of greed and sloppiness and apathy. “All the states started swirling together,” he says. “Everywhere I went, it was the same story.” The sheer volume of stories is overwhelming; the official response, that there is no connection between the drilling and the contamination, is rendered more laughable and ludicrous with each passing vignette. Our belief in coincidence can only be stretched so far. “Too many stories to recount,” he says, “Like a skipping record.” Fox talks slow, but he moves fast, and his film surely and steadily gains power, building dread as he builds up steam. It’s a slow-boil of a documentary, but a powerful one.
Gasland is rather a mess technically, and it runs on a bit long, piling on additional anecdotes and criticisms after the point has been made, wearing down rather than overwhelming. But its quiet power cannot be overstated; in his hopeful yet worrisome closing passages, Fox leaves the viewer feeling depressed and somewhat helpless. It’s a familiar feeling.
"Gasland" is available now on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.