There’s an acerbically straightforward, old-fashioned muckrake gurgling with righteous pugnacity beneath the mannered surface of Josh Fox’s Gasland. At the start of the documentary, we’re in the director’s own Pennsylvanian backyard, perusing a suspiciously generous offer for the drilling rights to his family’s property. A few expository leaps later, we’re accompanying Fox on a cross-country road trip through the U.S.‘s natural gas-rich northeast and midwest, where a hazardous welling method known as hydraulic fracking has slipped through the legislative cracks to contaminate the water and air of dozens of counties. Nearly lysergic money shots abound: civilians hold Bic lighters precariously close to running faucets and watch their sinks ignite with hair-singing plumes of blue and orange; the curled-faced carcasses of rodents and birds who inhabited the banks of a polluted river are trotted out ad nauseam; and we hear from industry whistleblowers and Environmental Protection Agency officials who tell us that fracking is a risky but cheap method of natural gas extraction while deflecting the blame as high up the chain of command as it’ll go (it lands, predictably, on one-time Halliburton exec Dick Cheney, who invented a loophole for fracking within the Safe Drinking Water Act).
The peaceful but patriotically disillusioned red-state talking heads whose stories Fox captures gradually foster an environment of hopeless indignation; the cutaways to cloudy tap water during descriptions of appalling health conditions and government apathy had me sipping even a cup of tea with anxious hesitation. But Fox’s ungraceful and occasionally self-aggrandizing approach prevents our agitation from spilling over into fisted-citizen outrage. Part of this is the sheer ineptitude of the script and voiceover delivery; a mush-mouthed backstage kid with Buddy Holly glasses, Fox doesn’t have the science chops required to explicate the fracking process accessibly, and too many animated illustrations whiz by in a nebulous froth of blinking maps and lists of presumably toxic substances. In addition, Fox’s investigative reporting style falls somewhere between the imperious irony and self-iconizing of Michael Moore and the muddy, plain-Jane fact-cataloguing of a non-director like Barbara Kopple; by including his frustrated reactions to multiple unanswered phone calls and irrelevant attempts to achieve personal “clarity” throughout the trying production, he repugnantly situates himself as the face of the gasland crisis.
This is communicated most exasperatingly in a scene where Fox, touring the bubbly, carcinogenic pool of a well waste reservoir, dons a gas mask and parades around the perimeter with his banjo, unbothered by trolling workers. Unsurprisingly, this non sequitur image pervades the film’s promotional material, and while it’s sufficiently evocative (the instrument and the open plains suggesting an old America now unpurified), the splash of snooty black humor cheapens the subject’s immediacy. The interviewees whose homes and lives have been decimated, and who stand little chance of receiving due restitution, are offered no such memorable avant-garde emblems. Fox instead speeds through multiple residents with identical problems (inflammable or sediment-thick water, broken appliances, health ailments, and government dismissal) instead of devoting more screen time to key representatives who can more thoroughly win our empathy; by the end of the assembly line, we’re aghast at both the human-rights violations on display and at how monotonous Fox has rendered them. Tellingly, he continually rejects the label of a documentary filmmaker, and when he drops interrogative bombs like the following, we happily concur: “Did you ever think you’d, uh, be freezing rabbits, doves, and animals in your freezer that, uh, you wanted to get autopsied?”
What’s most deplorable is that between the stretches of bumbling topical exploration and faux-lyrical nature punch-ins are informative tufts ablaze with haste-inspiring purpose. One unhappy member of the EPA bemoans the fact that nothing has changed under Obama; the natural gas companies can still frack, and even expose drinking water sources to pollutants, with mandated impunity. But when the time comes to turn to experts for at least a hint of a solution, a fatigued Fox shrugs, stands meditatively by a verdant stream, and proceeds to point fingers just as sloppily as Halliburton’s underlings do: “I guess in a large part that depends on you,” he says. And what could have been an intrepidly personal—and more importantly efficacious—call to action becomes a thickheaded argument for art-house indolence. By the movie’s end, Fox has become so overwhelmed by the homework of social activism that he buries his stray ends under a sheen of prettified rural-northeastern B roll, leaving his audience to sort out their vague, only half-informed outrage on their own. One hopes that the polemical evidence will inspire more appropriately equipped individuals to construct cases and lobby, but Fox doesn’t seem to realize that the issue he’s clumsily investigating is of far more significance than his shitty little film.