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Case Number 27526: Small Claims Court

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Fracknation (Blu-ray)

Magnolia Pictures // 2013 // 77 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 30th, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas thinks this doc is a little fracked up.

The Charge

"I just want the truth."

The Case

Glancing at the Fracknation disc packaging, I fully expected I would be watched a level-headed, scientifically-minded examination of the pros and cons of fracking which would attempt to provide a thoughtful, balanced view of the subject. Just check out this synopsis from the back of the case:

During a time of globally heightened debate, journalist Phelim McAleer travels across the U.S. and Europe to speak with scientists and Americans living in fracking areas, in order to uncover the science behind the process and to determine its true consequences. Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," refers to the process of drilling down into rock and using pressurized fluids to extract energy sources such as natural gas and petroleum. Supporters of fracking state the economic benefit to the U.S. is great and that the process has rigorous standards by which it operates. Opponents of fracking voice concerns about contamination to ground water and land surface, as well as other environmental issues. Join McAleer on the search for the fracking truth.

Sounds reasonable, right? It reads like the intro to a dry-but-informative PBS special, but what we actually get is an incredibly one-sided, vindictive series of angry potshots at the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland. That film, directed by Josh Fox, played a major role in raising awareness about fracking and in getting the practice banned in many areas. McAleer, a right-wing Irish journalist who has specialized in combating environmental causes over the years, seems determined to deflate the arguments Gasland makes and expose Fox as a phony. The film he ultimately delivers is shamelessly manipulative and features plenty of unsubstantiated insinuations, but I have to admit, it's kind of wickedly entertaining.

McAleer is no ordinary conservative blowhard. This is a muckraker of the first order; a man who really does his research and delights in embarrassing his opponents on camera. He's as skilled as Breitbart when it comes to finding fiendishly creative ways to make his enemies look foolish, and he has a much better handle on his temper than the late rabblerouser. He's not as interested in making a pro-fracking argument as he is in depicting the anti-fracking folks as a bunch of overreactive loonies. His first encounter with Fox takes place at a public Q&A, where Fox gets flustered by McAleer's questions and ultimately evades them. When McAleer posts a video of the encounter online, Fox has his lawyers remove the video. Probably a bad move, as this inspires McAleer to make a documentary which might as well be subtitled Josh Fox is a Liar and a Jerk. In later encounters, Fox continues to attempt to avoid McAleer, refusing to engage his questions rather than confronting him and shutting down his arguments. Later, McAleer tracks down one of the key figures from Gasland, a woman who claimed that fracking had contaminated the water on her land. When McAleer asks for a water sample, she denies his request, insults him for being a foreigner and informs him that she owns a gun and she's not afraid to use it.

McAleer seems to revel in inspiring such ungainly behavior (just look at the way he and his co-director Ann McElhinney chuckle with delight after she's physically assaulted by an angry PR person at one of Fox's book signings), and he admittedly conjures up enough evidence to suggest that portions of Gasland may have been a bit of an overreaction, but the pro-fracking case he presents is a rather thin one. McAleer is perhaps right to suggest that too many people have accepted that fracking is an incredibly dangerous, evil thing without sufficient evidence, but he's wrong to suggest that this means we should just go ahead and blindly accept it as a positive. The fact is that there really hasn't been enough in-depth research done on the subject yet, and there are legitimate concerns which need to be further explored. Despite his frequent posturing and his history of climate change denial, McAleer has a point of view on the subject worth noting. The problem is that his point of view is the only one Fracknation has to offer, so we end up with something even more one-sided than the documentary McAleer attacks so venomously.

Fracknation (Blu-ray) offers a so-so 1080p/1.78:1 transfer, but this is a low-budget doc with footage that varies considerably in quality. Some footage looks crisp and sharp, other pieces are heavily pixelated or rather blurry. So it goes. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is fine, but there isn't much of note here on an audio level—just a lot of talking heads and a few generic song selections. Supplements include some deleted scenes, McAleer's Kickstarter video and some TV spots.

Fracknation is little more than sensationalist propaganda with an oddly personal vendetta against Josh Fox, but at least it's pretty entertaining. Don't expect to gain much insight into fracking, but the film is certainly filled with memorable moments.

The Verdict

Guilty, but kind of a guilty pleasure.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 77 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Blu-ray
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Kickstarter Pitch
• Deleted Scenes
• TV Spots


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