Blog Post

Matt Damon, Energy Cassandra

Jan 16, 2013 | Nathan Richardson

In 2005's critically acclaimed Syriana, Matt Damon plays Bryan Woodman, an energy analyst who becomes a policy adviser to a fictional Gulf emirate. In a classic scene, Woodman challenges his royal employers by speaking frankly about the country's economy and warning that outsiders (particularly Americans) will try to exploit the emirate while keeping it in poverty.


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Then later, when the Prince asks what American lawyers who have sued his father are up to:

They're thinking that it's running out, it's running out and 90% of whats left is in the Middle East. Look at the progression, Versailles, Suez, 1973, Gulf War 1, Gulf War 2. This is a fight to the death. So what are THEY thinking? Great! They're thinking keep playing, keep buying yourself new toys, keep spending $50,000 a night on your hotel room, but don't invest in your infastructure... don't build a real economy. So that when you finally wake up, they will have sucked you dry, and you will have squandered the greatest natural resource in history...

In other words, watch out for the resource curse, don't let it happen to you!

In the film, nobody is willing or able to take his advice. The emirate's fate is left ambiguous, but we can assume the only figure who agrees with Woodman, Prince Nasir, continues to be blocked by internal and external powers. Woodman's advice and warning, however, are a core message of the movie.

In the somewhat less acclaimed current release Promised Land (which Alan reviewed earlier) we find Damon as Steve Butler, land man for a fictional natural gas drilling firm attempting to lease mineral rights from citizens of a small Pennsylvania town. The movie is a series of illustrations of how he is not very good at this job (his employer seems equally incompetent, not least because of their decision to give him a big promotion).

In one barroom scene, Butler tells some of the equally inebriated townsfolk what he really thinks about their reluctance to sell out.  The resulting monologue is entertaining, though mostly because Damon seems to temporarily adopt his smarter, less feckless Syriana character. It's as if Bryan Woodman has walked into the wrong bar (and the wrong movie).

You people baffle me, how you just don't get it . . . [it's] money. And I'm not talking about little pay increases, I'm talking about "f**k you" money. Don't want to apply for college loans for your kids? This money says "f**k you, loans". . . The bank's gonna foreclose on your family farm? "F**k you", bank. "F**k you" money is the ultimate liberator. And underneath this town is "f**k you" money.

In other words, don't worry about environmental damage or the resource curse, at least not now. You have bigger problems.

Of course, the townspeople don't listen to Butler. Unfortunately he, unlike Syriana's Woodman, is unlikely to get ahead by telling the raw, unvarnished truth. All he gets is a punch in the nose for his trouble. But the monologue stands out as the clearest statement of one of the two competing visions for the town's future in the film.

I think there's more to this parallel than Matt Damon acting like the smartest guy in the room and getting ignored (or worse). In one sense, the two characters are making the same point in their moments of clarity: take the money that energy brings, and use it to solve your problems. With money, you can stop relying on others who are manipulating or exploiting you. They even point to some of the same problems: education and economic development.

But in another sense, Woodman's warnings show the risks of following the path Butler advocates. Take big energy money into your community, for little work, and you might solve your immediate problems (whether unemployment and social decline, or murderous intertribal violence), but you'll have a whole new set of new ones that aren't necessarily any easier to deal with (whether becoming a geopolitical pawn or losing your small-town identity). The choices start hard and don't get any easier.

This is the only part of Promised Land that works for me. I think it fails as good entertainment and as a specifically environmental movie, but it sort of works as a message picture. The message I get is that energy needs force communities into hard decisions with nonobvious consequences for their way of life. These are valid observations, for small towns, small countries...and big ones. Promised Land doesn't make them nearly as effectively as Syriana does, of course, but they're valid nonetheless.