A real-life David vs. Goliath (a cliché I loathe, but so appropriate here) drama, which, in my opinion, should be required viewing in every hospital, high school, university, church, synagogue, temple, etc. across the U.S., unfolds in DARK WATERS, the new film by director Todd Haynes. David, in this context, is represented by Rob Bilott, a dedicated corporate defense attorney who does battle with Goliath --- DuPont and their product, Teflon.
Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has just made partner at a highly regarded law firm in Cincinnati. His work to date has been defending Big Chem companies. Two farmers, Wilbur (Bill Camp) and Jim (Jim Azelvandre) Tennant, from Parkersburg, West Virginia, come to see him at the behest of Rob’s grandmother. They are seeking answers regarding the death of at least 200 head of cattle on their adjoining farms.
DuPont owns a major chemical plant in Parkersburg, and they have purchased property behind the Tennants for a landfill. Wilbur and Jim firmly believe that whatever DuPont is dumping in that space is polluting the creek from which their cattle drink. Unable to get any satisfactory responses from DuPont, they are turning to Rob in their frustration.
What ensues is a more than 20-year grievance --- that is still ongoing --- which affects Rob’s relationship with his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), his family, job and ultimately, his health. It truly is one man’s struggle to expose an extremely powerful adversary in an effort to save and protect a community unaware of the dangers to which they have been subjected.
Based on Nathaniel Rich’s article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare” published in The New York Times Magazine in January 2016, DARK WATERS is a true horror story. Aware of what they were doing and the consequences of their actions, DuPont continued to subject their workers to the “forever chemical” PFOA, causing birth defects and multiple types of cancer. Bilott’s story is an expose of corporate greed to the nth degree.
Haynes (FAR from HEAVEN, 2002, CAROL, 2015, WONDERSTRUCK, 2017) brings the engrossing screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa to life in spectacular fashion. Though Bilott does get some support from his supervising partner at the firm, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), it’s basically his case and, at times, the tensions run very high and he becomes a target, like many others who have outed a major company’s wrongdoings. DARK WATERS is tense and absorbing --- a real corporate thriller.
And Haynes has assembled a mighty cast --- Ruffalo, himself, a well-known activist, is hugely important to this film’s success. This is the type of role so suited for him and his talents. No one exemplifies the weary underdog as well as he.
Hathaway and Robbins are sterling in their supporting roles. Sarah, who gave up her own law career to raise their sons, isn’t always thrilled with Rob’s choices and Hathaway makes that abundantly clear to the audience. Terp isn’t initially very keen to involve their firm in this kind of suit, but when Rob is challenged by a new partner in a meeting, Robbins delivers a stirring and memorable defense of Bilott’s efforts in what could be an Oscar-worthy performance. I seriously wanted to jump to my feet in an ovation. Victor Garber, Mare Winningham and Bill Pullman also star, completing Haynes’ exemplary cast.
At a time when corporate regulations are once again being rolled back in favor of large companies and their bottom lines, it is imperative that movies like DARK WATERS be seen and taken seriously. The absolute atrocities perpetrated on the citizens of Parkersburg, who believed DuPont would never do the things of which they are accused, are despicable. Unless we remain vigilant, these violations will continue to occur.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
Imagine you’re a successful attorney who has just been elevated to partner in your law firm. You represent corporate chemical companies defending your clients against lawsuits. One day local farmers --- at their wits’ end --- come into your office seeking legal help. Something in the environment has been killing their herd of 200 cattle. They want answers and have nowhere else to turn.
Such is the brief synopsis of DARK WATERS. In a role tailor-made to suit his talents, Mark Ruffalo is real-life attorney Rob Bilott. His superior at the law firm is Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), the man who gives Rob the green light to pursue his investigation of DuPont, based on scientific evidence and Bilott’s own observation of Wilbur Tennant’s (Bill Camp) cattle burial ground.
DARK WATERS, based on a true story that spans 15 years, is akin to other films involving a whistleblower --- could this possibly be any more timely? I was instantly reminded of the Meryl Streep classic SILKWOOD (1983). As for Ruffalo, he was Oscar-nominated for another film that concerned a social ill, i.e., child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (SPOTLIGHT, 2015). Ruffalo, himself, is very active in social causes.
This movie showcases how one individual successfully took on a great corporate entity, namely DuPont, who has a major plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, employing thousands of its residents and could do no wrong in their eyes. Bilott faced extreme scrutiny from the community as he did a 180 degree turn from defense attorney to prosecutor, risking his health, his career and his marriage to wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway).
At the center of the case is Dupont’s product called PFOA or C8, which is perfluorooctanoic acid, a derivative of PTFE, the chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon since 1951, some 19 years before the formation of the EPA. Sources say that PTFE is considered a “minor” exposure pathway to PFOA, which can lead to kidney cancer, among other conditions. But DARK WATERS is more concerned with the illegal dumping of chemical sludge --- some 7100 tons --- into the Ohio Valley fields and waters. When the impassioned Tennant explains to Bilott that his cattle suffered horrible deaths from drinking water contaminated with PFOA/C8, and Bilott sees for himself the brutal effects on the animals, he is shocked and has found his mission in life.
The result is a taut film from director Todd Haynes (CAROL, FAR from HEAVEN) and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, based on Nathaniel Rich’s article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare”. It is gratifying to see powerful people finally do the right thing. Terp has his doubts about allowing Bilott to continue his research, but ultimately yields to the evidence that is uncovered. Robbins is heroic in the role of Terp even as he admonishes Bilott to never do this sort of thing again.
Hathaway is conflicted as Bilott’s wife and mother to their three children. She delivers a performance that movie audiences can admire as she becomes increasingly supportive of her husband. But naturally this movie centers on Ruffalo as the brave protagonist who risks everything to pursue what is morally and legally correct.
Ruffalo spent many hours with the real Rob Bilott, not only to learn about the facts of the case --- Bilott offered to “tell him everything” before Ruffalo committed to the role --- but also to discover the toll this epic battle had on Bilott’s life.
Although Ruffalo and Haynes had never worked together before, the actor sent Haynes the script because he admired his past directorial efforts. As the consummate professional that he is, Ruffalo gives an understated but powerful performance. Bill Pullman (Harry Dietzler, another attorney), Mare Winningham (Darlene Kiger) and especially Victor Garber (Phil Donnelly, DuPont executive) have key supporting roles.
There are some startling revelations in DARK WATERS, none more so than PFOA/C8 is a “forever chemical” that doesn’t break down in a subject’s body. Although something like 98% of humans have some form of the chemical in their system due to exposure to many household products, it is only trace amounts. The EPA previously mandated that eight major chemical companies cease making PFOA/C8 which they did by 2015.
Haynes and his cast and crew manage to make DARK WATERS a compelling story. And in the process, they provide an important lesson that no one is above scrutiny for wrongdoing.
Opinion: See It Now!