JFS Engineering
Land Development and Water Resources Engineering
Recommended Movies for our Clients
Categories: Uncategorized


Image courtesy Robert Schilare Photography

Image courtesy Robert Schilare Photography

Land Development is a field where the technical world intersects the human condition. At this intersection lies a dynamic situation. It is here that the public good balances with profit, where rules are both a friend and a foe, neighbors’ battle over minutia. At this place where solid ground cannot be trusted, we can experience engineering as a form of edgework.

Clients new and old have asked me where I learned the craft of land development engineering and how they can learn more. A task never complete, it compels a lifelong dedication to the art. We’re constantly learning, and appreciate both fiction and non-fiction as a way to experience this immersion.

With that said, we have compiled a list and critique of movies we recommend for Clients. Land development, or engineering for that matter, isn’t extensively portrayed in film, but there are snippets of it there if we look. The films are ordered like a typical top ten. We hope that you will find this syllabus both amusing and informative.

Warning: Contains Spoilers.


#10: Iron Man (2008)

A summer blockbuster based on the venerable comic franchise. Under the excitement lies the deeper drama of an engineer who knows how to re-write the rules. Innovation usually trumps old methods, and the moral of the obligatory end-of-movie fight scene is that bigger is not always better. Tony Stark is a brilliant engineer, but he also has the resources to make bold advances. Technical expertise, immersion, and accepting risk eventually win over greed and excessive belt-and-suspenders-engineering.

To us the lesson is that innovation is edgework, there is risk involved. Edgework also requires a deep understanding of how to assess, manage, and mitigate risks, like altitude icing.



#9: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

Preston Tucker was an engineer with a dream trying to save the world. Based on a real world engineer of the same name, this dramatization has some interesting points and in a way is a how-not-to for innovation. Like Tony Stark, the real Preston Tucker was technically brilliant and years ahead of his time. Arguably his most prolific invention, the Tucker Turret, was elegant and functional, saving many Allied lives during the World War 2.

Unlike Tony Stark, fictional Tucker operates as if the rules don’t apply to him. In order to win over the industry, he invites everyone to a lunch of rare roast beef and a slide show of traffic accidents. An interesting sales gimmick, but certainly not a dignified approach.

The lesson to us is that sometimes the world is not ready for the innovations it needs.



#8: Local Hero (1983)

In the oil and gas industry, a “land man” is someone responsible for acquiring and managing land holdings. Mac, a Houston based land man, is sent to a remote village in Scotland with the task of basically buying said village as a future refinery site. Mac’s boss visits to negotiate with a lone hold-out, and finally decides to build the whole refinery offshore.

The backdrop we’re interested in is the human story behind land acquisition and the interstices of deal making. After investing millions in engineering and design, the big boss changed the entire project after making a connection with the lone hold-out.



#7: There Will Be Blood (2007)

A deep, sometimes disturbing drama about the early oil rush days based on a novel by Upton Sinclair. Daniel, a ruthless former miner cum oil magnate, builds his mining empire. When Daniel faces resistance from one family, the Sundays, he manages to minimize their revenue by draining their field dry from an adjacent well.

The lesson here is that due diligence matters. In the end the Sundays didn’t understand enough about the deal or geophysics to protect their interests. Although due diligence can’t protect against unethical practices in all cases, it may have helped the Sundays drink their milkshake and have it too.



#6: Tampopo (1985, in Japanese, subtitled)

The seminal ramen western, this film is mostly about food, the human condition, and the restaurant business. The main plot is that two truck drivers give their honest opinion about a noodle joint, offer to help revamp the menu, and through some hard work and good luck turn a small business around. At first, Tampopo is floored by the up-front investment, but once her advisors explain how the business model can work its full steam ahead.

The lesson for us is that any design team will feature a diverse set of specialists, each with their own quirks and strengths. In the film, the team is precipitated from pure serendipity, and that’s usually the way life is.



#5: Beneath Hill 60 (2010)

The true story of an Australian mining engineer (Oliver Woodward) working during the Battle of Hill 60.  Although set in World War I Belgium, this movie mostly avoids gore in favor dirt and smoke. A must see for anyone looking for a visceral example of geophysics and construction staging. The sniper and sandbag scene, although short, is darkly funny.

The lesson to us is the peril of working in clay and water management during excavation. Trust me; it’s only slightly easier if the Germans are not shelling the work site.



#4: General Orders No. 9 (2009)

A trippy, data intensive, flashback inducing voiceover, this documentary is evocative of a bizarre urban planning and GIS slideshow lecture. While this movie gets it very wrong about vilifying urbanity in favor of the small town, it makes up for it with a masterful insight into human settlement, urban growth patterns, and our lost connection with the land.

Best watched more than once while stone cold sober, this is a crash course in geographic information, urban archetypes, and visualization.



#3: Kon Tiki (1950)

The real adventure of Thor Heyerdahl, five other Norwegians, and a parrot rafting across 5000 miles of the South Pacific from Peru to an uninhabited coral atoll. Drifting on a balsa log raft they put their lives in the hands of ancient techniques and technologies and shattered scores of myths about human migration, technology, and Nature itself.

The lesson for us is just how powerful and nurturing Nature can be. And sometimes the simplest technological answer is the best one.



#2: Chinatown (1974)

This film noir classic is a drama set amidst the California Water Wars of the 1930s. Like many cities, Los Angeles needed to acquire and build reservoir capacity far beyond its borders. The plot is about a land and water grab, pitting LA’s water engineer against a businessman looking to game the system. It’s a multi-layered drama that is acknowledged as one of the best screenplays ever produced.

The lesson here is that land development brings us into contact with some shady issues. Not all land development is shady, nor does it have to be to succeed. We simply must be aware that this territory does exist.



#1: The Money Pit (1986)

While renovating their dream house, Walter and Anna seem to make every possible mistake and suffer the consequences. A film that makes builders and architects cringe at every turn, miscommunications and vague planning result in a torrent of errors, change orders, and cost overruns. In the background we see how the project stresses their relationship and leads to the wise words: “You never really know someone until you try to renovate a house with them.”

To us the lesson is the question: where is their architect, general contractor, engineer, or anyone working in the young couple’s best interests? There doesn’t seem to be one, and that truly was their first and only mistake.