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photo still from There Will Be Blood of a the back of a man sitting on a stool watching flames erupt some distance in front of him

Edited by Robert Lifset, Raechel Lutz, and
Sarah Stanford-McIntyre 

Available now!
April 2023
PB 978-1-952271-76-2
eBook 978-1-952271-77-9

Energy and Society Series

American Energy Cinema


American Energy Cinema explores how Hollywood movies have portrayed energy from the early film era to the present. Looking at classics like Giant, Silkwood, There Will Be Blood, and Matewan, and at quirkier fare like A Is for Atom and Convoy, it argues that films have both reflected existing beliefs and conjured new visions for Americans about the role of energy in their lives and their history.

The essays in this collection show how film provides a unique and informative lens to understand perceptions of energy production, consumption, and infrastructure networks. By placing films that prominently feature energy within historical context and analyzing them as historical objects, the contributing authors demonstrate how energy systems of all kinds are both integral to the daily life of Americans and inextricable from larger societal changes and global politics.


List of Illustrations


Part 1: When Disaster Strikes

1. Blackouts, Bad Guys, and Belly Laughs: Exploring America’s First Cascading Power Failure in Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968)
Julie A. Cohn

2. Meltdown: Nuclear Cinema and the Martha Mitchell Effect in The China Syndrome (1979) and Silkwood (1983)
Caroline Peyton

3. “The Juice”: The Road Warrior (1981) and the Cultural Logic of Energy Denial in the Early Days of Modern Globalization
Christopher R. W. Dietrich

4. Built for Pyro: A Perfect Inferno on the Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Tyler Priest

5. Chernobyl (2019): A Soviet Propaganda Win Delivered Thirty-Three Years Late
Kate Brown

Part 2: Energy and Nature

6. Wings (1927): Aviation, War, and Energy
Conevery Bolton Valencius

7. Derricks and Skulls: Filming and Promoting the Extractive Landscapes of Boom Town (1940)
Michaela Rife

8. Petrodocumentary in the 1940s: The Standard Oil Photography Project, Louisiana Story (1948), and the Domestication of the US Oil Industry
Emily Roehl

9. TVA and the Price of Progress: Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960)
Donald C. Jackson

10. Do Action Movies and an Environmental Message Mix? About as Much as Oil and Water: On Deadly Ground (1994)
Teresa Sabol Spezio

Part 3: Critiquing the Western

11. Selling the American “Oil Frontier”: Tulsa (1949), Giant (1956), and American Resource Politics during the Early Cold War
Sarah Stanford-McIntyre

12. Ranches to Oil Wells: Reconfiguring the Western Hero in Hellfighters (1968) and Fires of Kuwait (1992)
Ila Tyagi

13. Revisiting Matewan (1987): Upending the Appalachian “Western” and Broadening an Old Labor Tale
James R. Allison III

14. “This Is the Third World”: Coal-Fired America in Montana (1990) and Powwow Highway (1989)
Ryan Driskell Tate

15. Hydrocarbon Nostalgia and Climate Disaster: An Environmental History of Hell or High Water (2016)
Mark Boxell

Part 4: Energy and Morality

16. Control of the Industry: Nineteenth-Century Oil and Capitalism in High, Wide and Handsome (1937)
Alexander Finkelstein

17. The Formula (1980): Corporate Villains, Synthetic Fuel, and Environmental Fantasies
Raechel Lutz

18. “Keep Moving”: Convoy (1978), Car Films, and Petropopulism in the 1970s
Caleb Wellum

19. There Will Be Petroleum Cinema: Portraying the Corrosion of Oil Addiction in There Will Be Blood (2007)
Brian C. Black

Part 5: Energy and the State

20. There’s No Business Like Oil Business: The Allure of Tax-Sheltered Oil Income to Hollywood’s Wealthy
Yuxun Willy Tan

21. “Limitless Power at Man’s Command”: A Is for Atom (1953), the Cold War, and Visions of the Nuclear Future in the 1950s
Sarah E. Robey

22. Syriana (2005): The Oil Curse and Hollywood’s 9/11 Film
Robert Lifset

23. Hoover Dam in Hollywood: Energy Anxiety in Superman (1978), Transformers (2007), and San Andreas (2015)
Daniel Macfarlane



Robert Lifset is the Donald Keith Jones Associate Professor of History in the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Power on the Hudson: Storm King Mountain and the Emergence of Modern American Environmentalism. Raechel Lutz teaches history and civics at the Wardlaw+Hartridge School. Sarah Stanford-McIntyre is assistant professor of engineering, ethics, and society at the University of Colorado Boulder.


“A rich and compelling collection of essays covering a broad range of moments and films in the histories of oil, coal, nuclear power, and energy in America.”
Toby Jones, Rutgers University 

“Movies are a fun escape from reality, cultural snapshots in time, and valuable historical documents. That’s the key thesis and value of this book: it gives readers an engaging way to learn the history of energy—rather, the history of American society—with a century of thrillers, dramas, comedies, and whodunits. Addressing a range of genres, story lines, and themes, this collection of essays will be captivating and informative for movie lovers, energy enthusiasts, and historians alike.”
Michael E. Webber, host and creator of the PBS special Energy at the Movies