Good Lord, watch enough activist documentaries and you'll pretty much give up on the entire human race. 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.
There's no getting around it: Gasland looks terrible. Not all of the time, mind you--the picture-postcard photography of Fox's land is quite lovely, and isolated scenes and shot look just fine. But Fox appears to have chosen to use, on his primary camera, some sort of heavy digital filter that renders the anamorphic widescreen image grainy and downright ugly (and gives the motion a strangely slowed-down, almost interlaced look). The shots taken on the B-camera look fine, so this is apparently a choice he made early on, and stuck with (and one that is clearly the fault of the source materials and not the apparently faithful transfer). But much of the film is a hazy, grainy wreck to look at. It does create a certain aesthetic, and that's apparently the look that Fox wanted, but consider yourself duly warned.
The 2.0 stereo track, on the other hand, does the job ably; there are some scenes where interview audio is a tad rough, but that's to be expected in a documentary like this one, where much of the sound is captured on the fly. That said, there are no serious audibility issues, and the music cues and narration are well-modulated and clean.
Nine Bonus Scenes (48:20 total) vary from slight extensions of existing sequences to full-on deleted scenes. Most are worth a look, though certainly not at the same sitting as the somewhat overpowering main feature.
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.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.