For a society that places so much emphasis on celebrity, it is kind of surprising that in the century or so that movies have been our most popular art form, we have only elected a handful of movie stars to public office. I suspect the reason for this is one that only raises more questions: movie stars can enjoy as much as influence as politicians with far fewer expectations for results. Despite the myth of the liberal Hollywood elite, those actors who have been successful in politics have overwhelmingly leaned conservative. Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Charlton Heston spring to mind as the most successful examples. Much to the dismay of Democrats everywhere, liberal activists from Hollywood seem more focused on their own pet issues and less likely to risk losing their fan base by running for office.
In recent years, George Clooney’s name has been bandied about as a potential dream candidate for Democrats. And why not? He is second-to-none in star quality, open about his activism and support of the party, and has a political pedigree: his father, Nick Clooney, ran for office (and lost) as recently as 2004. But Clooney has seemed content to focus his activism on a single issue (the war in Sudan), and his movies, while rarely lacking in political themes, are usually non-partisan. In interviews promoting “The Ides of March,” for example, he noted that he made his lead character, a flawed presidential candidate, a Democrat specifically because he wanted to avoid criticism from the right.
While Clooney seems unlikely to enter the political arena as a candidate, a friend of his appears to be inching closer to making the leap.
It was recently announced that Matt Damon will star in “The Promised Land,” a new film about the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or, as it is more commonly known, “fracking.” This role choice is significant because it indicates that Damon is now prioritizing his political activism over his career as a movie star.
Fracking is still an unknown entity in some parts of the country, but it could be coming soon to a town near you. Fracking is a process by which natural gas is extracted from the ground by pumping a mixture of sand, water, and chemicals into a well, which breaks up rock and releases the gas. It’s a controversial practice due to the many, well-documented health risks to people who live in areas that are being fracked. Most of these concerns have to do with the release of natural gas into the water supply, which was demonstrated in Josh Fox’s excellent 2010 documentary, “Gasland.” Here is the most memorable scene:
The plot of Damon’s new movie (which he also co-wrote) has not been released but a few details have emerged. According to IMDB.com, it tells the story of “a salesman who experiences life-changing events after arriving in a small town.” It sounds like it follows the same template as other activist movies such as “The China Syndrome” and “Blood Diamond,” in which the lead character gets exposed to a dangerous reality previously covered up by corporate interests. While neither Jane Fonda nor Leonardo DiCaprio, the respective leads in those films, was heavily criticized for the role, there was an extenuating circumstance in each case. “The China Syndrome,” a pro-environment movie that detailed the fallout from a nuclear meltdown, was released in a less politically divisive time, and nothing that liberal activist Fonda did could have riled up her opponents much more than they already were. And “Blood Diamond,” which illuminated the plight of African workers in the diamond trade, tackled an issue that was largely apolitical. Although both Fonda and DiCaprio have continued to be advocates, they have done so in more cautioned, politically-palatable ways.
Damon, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care who he pisses off. At the Save Our Schools March in Washington last summer, he was interviewed by Reason TV, an off-shoot of the libertarian magazine. Flanked by his mother, a public school teacher, Damon let loose:
Predictably, he was roundly mocked by those on the right and celebrated by those on the left. None other than Michael Moore championed the idea of a Damon presidential run, citing the need to compete with Republicans who routinely trot out celebrities to run for office. He sees Damon as part of a new breed of Democrats, a “Democrats 2.0” party that will stand up for working people in the ways that current Democrats have failed. Damon himself has not been shy about criticizing the current Democratic administration, recently telling Elle magazine:
I’ve talked to a lot of people who worked for Obama at the grassroots level. One of them said to me, “Never again. I will never be fooled again by a politician.” You know, a one-term president with some balls who actually got stuff done would have been, in the long run of the country, much better.
Sounds like the words of someone who thinks he can do better. Damon has stated publicly, however, that he has no interest in running for office. Of course, we’ve heard that before. A look at his filmography indicates that Damon has always been interested in political issues, though in recent years they have become more of a focus. His early films were ostensibly apolitical, but most of them dealt with issues of class and income inequality in a more roundabout way. “Good Will Hunting,” “Rounders,” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” would fit into this category. The political statements in these films are subtextual, as opposed to films that aim to make a political statement or are set in a political milieu. This is not an unusual career path for politically active actors. A good corollary would be the work of Charlie Chaplin, who championed working people as the Tramp in his early films but made overtly political statements in films like “The Great Dictator” towards the end of his career.
As Damon’s star has ascended and his career has become more stable, he has shifted focus and starred in a number of films that hinged on political issues dear to the American left. “Syriana” exposed the perils of Big Oil. “The Informant!” spoofed corporate corruption. “Green Zone” was critical of the case made by the Bush administration for the War in Iraq. Damon even had a small part in “Che,” Steven Soderberg’s biopic of Che Guevara.
But frankly, none of those films tackled subjects as timely and controversial as fracking. Ever since the BP oil spill, natural gas, which is seen as a safer alternative, has become increasingly popular. For a couple of months here in DC, Metro stations were flooded with ads bought by the American Petroleum Institute, urging Americans to “Vote 4 Energy.” These ads were peppered with facts and figures about natural gas. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) has introduced the FRAC Act, a bill that will pave the way for further fracking in his own state, while including some half-hearted provisions meant to ensure public safety. The bill received a hearing in the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife but is extremely unlikely to move in an election year.
Furthermore, the issue is being dealt with in several state legislatures. Sen. Casey’s own state, Pennsylvania, has passed a controversial state law that favors the natural gas industry. The law is designed to expedite in-state fracking, but opponents of the practice are drawing attention to a provision buried in the law. According to some, this provision, added in committee conference without a vote, allows doctors to get data from the state about local fracking if they see symptoms in their patients suggestive of contamination, but it does not allow the doctors to share this data with their patients. The final terms of these “confidentiality agreements” between physicians and the state have not yet been drafted, but public health and environmental advocates are rightly concerned. Either way, it is clear that this issue is not going away anytime soon. With the stain of the BP oil spill still fresh in the minds of the public and with the appetite for renewable energy sources seemingly shrinking, natural gas is the only politically palatable option.
So what will this mean for Matt Damon? Well, it means that “The Promised Land” will be immediately dismissed by right-wing commentators who are already skeptical of the “liberal Hollywood elite.” But a good story has more power than a hundred Rush Limbaughs. The movie will reunite Damon with his “Good Will Hunting” director Gus Van Sant, a sign that it will have commercial appeal and the potential to be a hit.
But more interesting is this: by writing and starring in a film whose subject is highly politicized, Damon has indicated that he values his activism over his celebrity and, ultimately, his acting career. But is this a clear intent to seek public office? Maybe. He is clearly willing to risk his career for the causes important to him, so a second career in government would seem to be a natural fit. He could be the “one term president with some balls” that he opined for. But those actors who have achieved success in politics did so by staying politically neutral onscreen. Reagan and Schwarzenegger, for example, never made overtly political statements in their films. Then again, they were Republicans.
Though we cannot know at this juncture what the future will hold for Damon, we do know this. If he runs for office, he will do so as an actor who has been up front about his political beliefs and has incorporated them heavily into his work. In this way, he would be blazing a new trail for activist actors. If, on the other hand, he stays committed to acting, he will continue to make films that matter to him, even if he loses some of his audience in the process. Either way, I will be interested to see what comes next.