Review – Hulk Smash DuPont (“Dark Waters”)

Based on the 2016 New York Times magazine article, The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, by Nathanial Post, this fact-based movie will make you cringe with nervous anxiety knowing this fact: every single human on Earth is (and has been) poisoned by chemicals from companies like DuPont.

It’s 1998 and corporate attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is having a banner year. He’s just made partner in his law firm and his loving and supporting ex-attorney wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), who just had a baby, couldn’t be happier. But someone from his grandmother’s old neighborhood is about to change his life. Forever. Farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) has video proof that something isn’t right in the town of Parkersville, West Virginia. Curious, Robert goes out there and finds that 190 cows have mysteriously died on Wilbur’s farm; only a few miles away from a massive DuPont manufacturing plant. A plant that’s keeping the town alive, btw.

Robert’s curiosity goes into over-drive after he reads a ridiculous EPA form saying that, not only was the ground safe there, but Wilbur was to blame for the cows! Robert consults DuPont’s sleazy chief executive Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) who is all to happy to give up certain documents, until he realizes that Robert is getting too close. Robert and his law firm decide to sue for more information on DuPont’s toxic chemicals, much to the chagrin of his boss (Tim Robbins). Robert, in his hard-core searching, discovers a reoccurring chemical mentioned that’s NOT regulated by the EPA: something called PFOA or C8. But what is this stuff?

Tenacious and consulting a chemist, he finds out (much to his horror) that PFOA-C8 is actually the main ingredient in Teflon, the non-stick agent in pans and a multi-billion dollar product! AND it’s by-product is being dumped into the air, ground, and waters in Parkersville, causing the 70,000+ people there to get some form of dreaded sickness or cancer! Soon, a class-action lawsuit is implemented, but DuPont won’t back down as they bring in a ‘ringer’; someone who claims the tainted water there is okay to drink.

Years go by and Robert, doggedly pursuing this like a personal vendetta, won’t back down until DuPont pays back what they owe to the people they poisoned for decades. Yeah, he’s STILL doing it to this day! Adapting the article is newbie Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (21 Bridges, World War Z) and it’s a very long screenplay looking at the intricacies, behind-the scenes, and detailed inner workings of what it takes to take down a corporation as big as DuPont. Fascinating, as it is, it’s about 20 minutes too long in it’s approach. Some editing would have improved on the overall narrative structure.

The director is Todd Haynes from forgotten films like I’m Not Here, Carol, and Wonderstuck. As with his other efforts, this movie does not give you the happy feels. Todd goes for the dark, morose, and even disturbing in this yearly calendar of events counting down the happenings like a ticking time bomb of depressing outcomes. Muted in grays and dark colors, the camera slips and slides in and out of these peoples lives like a fly on the wall, many times reminding me of a documentary.

Like it’s doppelganger, Erin Brockovich, there should have been more energy to the scenes. The saving grace are the actors who really make this movie soar. Ruffalo, after having been cast as a priest-hunter in Spotlight, now plays a loving Roman Catholic husband on a crusade. His sense of dreaded urgency is wonderful and sad to witness. Hathaway is great as his long-suffering and patient wife and Robbins, a long-time activist, immerses himself in the role as Ruffalo’s button-down boss. Look for Mare Winningham and Bill Pullman in smaller roles.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Based on a true story, this is what happens when a part-time secretary and her small-time lawyer boss go up against the powerhouse Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), who where directly responsible for poisoning the water of Hinkley, California. According to Brockovich herself, this film is about “98% accurate”. Not too shabby.

Starting in 1993, single mom Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) isn’t living la vida loca. She’s unemployed, she has three little kids, and she’s suing a doctor that she recently has been injured with in a traffic accident. In court, her temper flares up and her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), nearly drops her as a client. In an act as a desperate women, Erin asks Ed for a job who, surprisingly, givers her one as a secretary. Naturally, the others in his office don’t like her because she always dresses like… well, like a “pretty woman” (get it?).

Anyway, Erin is given files for PG&E who is offering to purchase the home of Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger), a resident of Hinkley, Ca. Erin is shocked to see her medical records in the file and visits Donna. Erin soon realizes that her cancerous tumors are due to the tainted groundwater in Hinkley, which is seriously contaminated with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium. BUT! PG&E had been telling Hinkley residents that they’re using a safer form of chromium, so they’re exempt from any wrong doing. While this all going on, she’s getting help from her next-door biker neighbor, George (Aaron Eckhart), who becomes her unexpected babysitter and BF.

Meanwhile, as Erin is digging deeper into PG&E’s cases, using her magnificent cleavage to gain access to files she shouldn’t see. She’s also talking to many other residents of Hinkley and finding many other cases of cancer, tumors, and other medical problems. Everyone there has been treated by PG&E’s doctors and then okayed because it was “safe” chromium. The Jensens’ claim for compensation grows into a major class-action lawsuit from there, and then the 634 other follow with lawsuits of their own. Luckily, a former employee (Tracey Walters) gives Erin damning evidence to prove that PG&E dumped poisonous hexavalent chromium into the water, but did nothing about it. Result? The judge ordered PG&E to pay a settlement of $333 million to the residents of Hinkley!

You just couldn’t go wrong with this movie. A winning screenplay by Susannah Grant (Ever After, 28 Days), directed by Steven Soderbergh (the Oceans trilogy,  Traffic), and the winning cast of Roberts, Finney, Eckhart, and Helgenberger. Wow. And it reflected in all the tons of awards it got, including Best Actress for Roberts and Best Supporting Actor for Finney. Almost like a Rocky movie, Erin Brockovich (who has a cameo as a waitress, btw), scored high with the box office and critics, not to mention giving PG&E a black eye in the process.

Roberts and Finney are just a joy to watch here: Roberts, giving her quotable line, “They’re called boobs, Ed”, and seeing Finney (as Masry) trying to keep his cool while Brockovich brow-beats him into doing the right thing. While you’re watching great performances, it’s hard to escape the elephant-in-the-room; the fact that hundreds of innocent men, women, and children were poisoned by a truly greedy, deceitful, and reprehensible company all in the name of the all-mighty dollar.

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