British Association for American Studies


Book Review: American Energy Cinema, ed. by Robert Lifset, Raechel Lutz, and Sarah Stanford-McIntyre 

West Virginia University Press, $29.99.

The essays in American Energy Cinema set out to show how popular film can be an enlightening primary source for historians who are interested in how Americans have thought about and interpreted the role of energy in their lives and the life of the nation. The premise of the volume is inherently exciting and feels like uncharted territory – gather together a group of historians whose work has not necessarily considered film before, give each contributor the task of writing about a single example, and relay valuable insights that were gained through multiple rewatches and careful research around the background of each production.

You might initially be concerned that taking a ‘Pick a Movie’ approach to editing could result in a dizzyingly structured volume that is unable to form any consistent narratives about cultural history, but this ends up being a considerable strength. The chapters, which are arranged in sections addressing the themes of disaster, nature, the West, morality and the state, are reliably engaging as reflections on films as products of the societies in which they were made, and impress as highly personalised examples of historical practice emerging in response to a new brief. American Energy Cinema, the most recent publication from WVU Press’ Energy and Societies book series, differentiates itself as the inaugural cultural history of energy with film as its primary source. Its contribution to the energy humanities is substantial, pointing towards an entirely new area of study. For the general reader, the essays are a reminder that energy questions have stimulated powerful drama through screenwriting and that narrative film can deliver much needed human perspective to pressing environmental issues.

Figure 1

To start the debate, contributors focus in on Hollywood’s familiar fascination with narratives of disaster, and the opening set of essays complement the relatively established literature on eco-disaster film. Rather than sticking closely to the problem of on-screen depictions of disasters, which has been an approach that books like Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann’s Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge have previously demonstrated. Two papers in this section are particularly valuable in reflecting on how filmmakers have declined to position their work in relation to energy questions off screen [i]. Tyler Priest’s essay on Deepwater Horizon (2016) and Kate Brown’s analysis of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019) both foreground examples of the ambivalent relationships that disaster films have had with the environmental implications of the catastrophes they are structured around: a problem condensed in creator and writer Craig Mazin’s assertion that the latter ‘was not an anti-nuclear polemic … anyone who thinks the point of this is that nuclear power is bad, they’ve just missed it’ [ii]. Mazin’s insistence that his project be seen, alternatively, as ‘pro-human’ follows the same argument that Deepwater Horizon’s director Peter Berg communicated during press interviews in anticipation of the project. Speaking with the New Orleans Times-Picayune alongside producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, he remarked that:

‘I want to make a film about people … Everybody knows that there was a horrible environmental disaster. Everybody knows that a lot of animals were killed. But what people don’t know is 11 men were killed and many more were injured and there were some real heroes on that rig. That was a very compelling human story – and that’s the story we all want to tell’ [iii].

This book doesn’t propose that energy cinema is a coherent genre. The topic is too encompassing to bracket in this way and the following thematic sections instead deftly thread together the rich and recurring ideas that have shaped American films about energy during the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries. The impression that is conveyed is a persistent sense of film’s capacity to vividly reflect the personal, as the above quotes suggest, whilst typically pushing aside the contextual and the structural. The most powerful films are rich in texture but, for this very reason, often narrow in scope. James R. Allison III underscores this blessing, or alternatively curse, in his assessment of Matewan (1987), John Sayles’ enthralling account of miner-company conflict in southern West Virginia. Allison conveys the process whereby networked institutions, in this case the Stone Mountain Coal Company and the United Mine Workers of America, are ‘transformed into a collection of personal relationships’ that play out within the limited spatial context of the company town [iv]. Papers across numerous sections combine to articulate a convincing critique of Hollywood’s recurring tendency to pit hard-scabble individuals against the representatives of far-reaching commercial interests, promoting the democratisation of energy access, particularly through the oil industry, rather than fundamentally questioning the legitimacy of extractive practices.

Figure 2

Following this thread, the text commendably ties together a rich picture of competition for resources and grassroots justice, from settings as varied as the nineteenth century Pennsylvania oil rush (High, Wide and Handsome, 1937), the coalfields of West Virginia (Matewan, 1987), a thirties Tennessee Valley facing social disruption as a result of government land acquisitions for hydropower dams (Wild River, 1960), and a closer to present day recession-hit West Texas (Hell or High Water, 2016). The discussion feels particularly urgent when it is able to touch on how films like Hell or High Water have returned in recent years to the story of how oil supports the economic liberation of insecure white Americans. Mark Boxell’s careful dismantling of the film’s premise, detailing the environmental and corporate realities of Texas around the time of the script’s development, is a gripping read.

The essays in this volume, its editors suggest, set out both to use cinema as a ‘window into American popular understandings of energy’ and to analyse the implications of connections and dependencies between Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington, and the fossil fuel industry. While American Energy Cinema certainly gestures in the latter, materialist, direction, sections that interrogate the sponsorship of film by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey in the 1940s and the use of the oil depletion allowance for tax advantage among the Hollywood wealthy are outliers. Rather, the book’s main contribution is as an enjoyable and accessible venue for historians and scholars to examine how major energy questions have been captured by the popular imagination and reflected the fundamental concerns of American producers and audiences. Individual contributors walk a careful line in negotiating the inherent fun of film and the seriousness of the issues and, as intended, deliver a great resource for engaging readers in far reaching discussions around the cultural implications of energy through history.

End Notes:

[i] Murray, Robert L. and Joseph K. Heumann. Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009).

[ii] Adams, Sam. ‘The Creator of Chernobyl on Viewers Taking Away the Wrong Lessons’, Slate, 3 June 2019. < https://slate.com/culture/2019/06/chernobyl-finale-hbo-miniseries-craig-mazin-interview.html>

[iii] Scott, Mike. ‘Deepwater Horizon’ director Peter Berg aims for authenticity in what he describes as a tale of heroism’, The Times-Picayune, 28 March 2015. <https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/movies_tv/deepwater-horizon-director-peter-berg-aims-for-authenticity-in-what-he-describes-as-a-tale/article_5b8bcfdc-8881-5697-b1dd-d94febe9fde4.html

[iv] Allison, James R., III. ‘Revisiting Matewan (1987): Upending the Appalachian “Western” and Broadening an Old Labor Tale’, in American Energy Cinema, ed. Robert Lifset, Raechel Lutz and Sarah Stanford-McIntyre (Morgantown: West Virginia Press, 2023), pp. 238-254, 245.  


Figure 1. Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, Macondo Prospect, Gulf of Mexico. 20 April 2010 (Wikimedia Commons).

Figure 2. Theatrical release one-sheet poster for the 1960 film Wild River (Wikimedia Commons).