Civic concern rarely produces great art, but if it results in a lean, conscientious piece of filmmaking, you can’t help but welcome the results. Josh Fox’s GasLand, a muckraking investigative documentary on the unacknowledged side effects of natural gas drilling across the U.S., makes one angry without stooping to rabble-rousing tricks.
Josh Fox has a non-actorish, yet concrete and affable on-screen presence, which saves GasLand from joining the Michael Moore school of agit-prop romps. Moore, to an unprecedented extent, combined the role of a clown with that of a reporter – by turning himself into a star of his movies, he got closer to the legacy of Robert Benchley than to that of Robert Flaherty. The most troubling thing about Moore’s approach was that he blurred the line between muckraking and self-aggrandizing (something Fox avoids altogether).
That is not to say that he lacks wit as a filmmaker. He’s perfectly capable of pointing out funny details he stumbles upon in his quest: the highlights include “the most comfortable couch in the United States”, as enormous as it’s furry (it even sports a tail), which Fox finds in one of the visited homes. Still, there are no knowing winks that would condescend to the interviewees (or to us).
Fox’s touch does falter, but so scarcely that it’s hardly worth mentioning (he’s a bit too zoom-happy when one of his subjects is on a brink of tears, and he lingers too long on the frozen critters killed by one of the leaks).
The movie’s steady refusal of falling into genre patterns borrowed from fiction moviemaking is what makes it fresh and affecting. You can praise The Cove (2009) all you want, but there was something cheap and demeaning in that movie’s eager tapping of spy-thriller devices, with the music pounding and with the editing trying to bend the (already horrific) reality, so that it meets the audience's hunger for thrills.
Fox’s near-deadpan tone of voice, along with his restraint from employing hip flourishes make his sole flight of performing fancy (a banjo concert in a gas-mask, played against a backdrop of land covered with porcupine-like field of gas derricks) come off as very poignant. When, at the very end, he addresses the audience and requires its political participation, you don’t feel manipulated, but alerted to something that matters – and you may acutually breathe a sigh of relief at being treated like an adult.