January 31, 2023

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‘On Sacred Ground’ review: The uneven drama about the Dakota Access Pipeline

3 min read

While there’s much to admire in “On Sacred Ground,” the first dramatic feature from environmental documentarians Josh and Rebecca Tickell, this technically polished indie effort is more admirable in its intent than forced in its narrative. And there’s really no way that a movie focused on the 2016 protests by Native Americans and their allies against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline would be alienated by the abundance of “white savior melodrama.”

To be sure, it can be argued that telling the story through the perspective of a non-indigenous protagonist is an effective way of pressing social issues about land use, water rights and cultural imperialism to a wider audience as the main character gets his eyes on it. Open and his conscience is stunned and blah, blah, blah. The problem is, the movie puts so much emphasis on the professional, domestic and psychological crisis of Dan McKinney (William Mapother), a freelance reporter hired by a conservative Houston newspaper to cover events on the northern Standing Rock Indian Reservation. South Dakota, that he inevitably overshadows everything and everyone else on screen. Sound familiar?

McKinney is chosen by the editor of the fictional Houston Daily (Frances Fisher) as the perfect journalist to provide the “correct perspective” while covering troubled protesters threatening to block the progress of the pipeline because (a) he’s a Republican, (b) his credit rating is below sea level. and (c) his very pregnant wife (Amy Smart) is about to give birth to the couple’s first child. (Admittedly, this got me thinking: Can editors really learn? that Much about an author through a casual online search? Alas.)

Sure enough, McKinney is so desperate for a paycheck, he expresses mild anxiety when he flies to Standing Rock in a private plane with Elliott Baker (David Arquette), a smooth-talking fixer who represents oil company interests. Baker wants to make sure McKinney tells his readers the truth about how unruly Native people and outside agitators are undermining a project designed to employ hundreds of workers and transport “500,000 gallons of crude oil a day.” When he’s not settling down as a wartime journalist in Iraq shaking off PTSD flashbacks, McKinney performs more or less on cue.

Indeed, his editor was so pleased with McKinney’s work that he sent him back to Standing Rock, pretending to ingratiate himself with the protesters, an objective journalist if not an ardent supporter, and to expose them as a threat to Americans. The way of life. Not surprisingly, something else happens.

Filmmakers often reflect their roots as documentarians, and not just in long scene-setting prologues that gloss over facts and figures in news footage. The same bombastic visual signaling is later used during a tense lunch scene in which an indomitable Baker and a newly enlightened McKinney argue over, among other things, the pipeline’s potential to contaminate the tribal water supply. Here and elsewhere, “On Sacred Ground” comes awfully close to blurring the line between igniting dramatic tension and preaching to the choir.

The supporting players cast as Native American protestors are impressive across the board, with particularly memorable contributions from Kerry Knupe as a brossy activist who is justifiably skeptical of McKinney; Irene Bedard as a protest organizer whose skepticism about reporters boils down to contempt; and David Midthunder as a protester who admirably accepts McKinney more until he has a good reason not to. (Credit Midthunder for powering one of the film’s more emotionally impactful moments, when he brusquely informs the reporter that it’s time to face the music.)

But even these fine actors are hard-pressed not to come off as window dressing as Mapother’s powerfully explosive performance is spotlighted and underscored, and “On Sacred Ground” puts the main emphasis on his character’s redemption. The result is a film that is not merely frustratingly uneven, but incredibly unbalanced.

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