IN TV AND MAGAZINE ADVERTISEMENTS, THE WORLD'S LEADing petroleum and coal corporations present themselves as angelic figures, gentle (and highly moral) giants providing billions of us (and our adorable children) with increasingly clean, renewable, and sustainable energy. BP, with its cute daisy icon, talks about its commitment to provide a wide range of alternative energy sources far "beyond petroleum." Chevron describes itself as a "human energy" company, focusing on the creativity, intelligence, and research of its legions of environmentally concerned scientists. And Shell, sounding a lot like Nike, says "Let's Go! Let's provide energy for the next generation!" as if we were building a tree house for our children.
AT THE MOVIES, HOWEVER, OIL AND COAL magnates and the huge corporations they run have long been cast as demons--greedy cinematic villains that lay waste to rivers and hills, pollute and poison communities, and oppress or kill their workers with abandon.
In John Ford's 1941 classic How Green Was My Valley, the faceless owners of a Welsh mining company are completely indifferent to the suffering and desperation of generations of workers toiling and dying in dangerous mines.
Likewise, the mining companies in Martin Ritt's The Molly Maguires (1970) and John Sayles' Matewan (1987) are implacable monsters intent on crushing struggling and striking miners in the same way their machinery pulverizes coal.
And in both the film and current Broadway musical of Billy Elliot (2000), a young Welsh boy must watch his father's generation get crushed by a mining industry that has made miners redundant. The owners are still rich and fat, but the men who slaved and died in their mines have been stripped of their jobs and dignity. At the movies, at least, old king coal is a very cold soul indeed.
THE OIL MAGNATES HAVEN'T FARED MUCH better in Hollywood. In 2005 American audiences sickened by the Bush administration's war for oil in Iraq flocked to see George Clooney's Syriana (Warner Bros.), a dark kaleidoscopic narrative in which Texas oil barons and their federal minions twist our nation's foreign and economic policies to suit their own corporate agenda. "Corruption," one oil tycoon brags, "keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why we win."
But even corruption seems like a tame vice compared to the villainy of oil magnate and wildcatter Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood (Paramount), Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 adaptation of Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel about oil barons. In this dark brooding film Lewis plays a monomaniacal monster devouring everything and everyone in his quest for black gold.
And for those who prefer documentary jeremiads against the oil industry, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 (Weinstein Company, 2004) leaves little doubt that America's war in Iraq was a policy drenched in oil, and Joe Berlinger's Crude (First Run Features, 2009) tracks a corporate lawsuit against oil giants Chevron and Texaco on behalf of Ecuadorian natives who believe they have been poisoned by oil spills in their homeland.
THIS APRIL LIFE IMITATED ART AS THE STORY of corporate villainy by major coal and oil companies (and moral blindness or ineptitude by the government agencies assigned to monitor them) played out in the news. …