Josh Fox's "GasLand" is the paragon of first person activist filmmaking done right. Matching his perspective with a slew of infuriating case studies, Fox explores the influx of hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), a method of drilling natural gas that endangers the sanity of water supplies in the immediate vicinity. He has a vested interest in the dangers of such operations that goes far beyond the pure narcissism of mugging for the camera: A Philadelphia landowner, he expresses a credible fear for his safety. By grounding a massive environmental issue in its personal ramifications, Fox turns "GasLand" into a remarkably urgent diary of national concerns.
The bulk of the movie features the director as he travels around the country visiting numerous rural homes where the water boils and burns. Yes, burns: In a shockingly memorable scene, one of Fox's subjects puts a flame to his faucet and then leaps back in fright as a massive fireball bursts forth from his sink. But the problem goes far deeper than such visual gimmickry. Some gas-affected residents suffer brain damage; many can't even take a shower. Placing Dick Cheney's waivers for companies looking to evade the Clean Air and Water Acts at the center of the issue, Fox makes it clear that the financial interests of corporate America leave little room for the safety of the inhabitants left in the line of fire.
Despite his facade as a cocky 37-year-old with hip wireframe glasses, Fox actually makes a trenchant reporter. The scenes of his visitations to various afflicted homes grows redundant, but this dense middle section ultimately functions as an intentional repetitive device to hammer home the magnitude of the problem. His knowledgable sources fill in the essential details. A whistleblower from the Environmental Protection Agency throws up his hands. "We're not present as a government agency to answer your legitimate questions," he sighs.
But "GasLand" succeeds primarily because Fox never forgets that he's making a movie, not simply an argument. The director's last feature, a fake documentary about the human impulses behind Abu Ghraib called "Memorial Day," took a radical stab at deconstructing universal hedonistic impulses by juxtaposing American partying with wartime torture. He drops that sort of heavy-handed analogizing here in favor of cogent cinematic devices. Poetic chapter titles ("Throw Water on a Dragon Man") keep viewers intrigued by the conspiracy at hand, but Fox doesn't shy away from enforcing the bleak nature of his story through metaphor: Along with the the blazing water, another powerful scene involves the filmmaker playing a banjo while wearing a gas mask, while the drills sit ominously behind him.
Fox conducted enough research to turn "GasLand" into an important document for any community afflicted by fracking problems, but it has wider appeal because he manages to tackle an urgent issue without negating the importance of the individual. He lets eccentricities enshroud the facts so that the movie works on multiple levels. A woman stores dead animals that drank unsanitary water in her freezer, hoping to use them as evidence. Another source gives provides cosmic observations so that Fox doesn't have to impose them himself. "What took Mother Nature millions of years to build," the man says, "can be destroyed in a couple of hours with a piece of machinery." That conclusion adds sentimental weight to a practical problem, which gives "GasLand" its lasting impact. At the Sundance Film Festival screening I attended, a teary-eyed woman stood up at the Q&A and announced, "I'm just so concerned for all of us." That's because "GasLand," although it's a snapshot of our times, also suggests the nightmarish possibilities of the future.