Producers: Mark Ruffalo, Christine Vechon, Jeff Skoll and Pamela Koffler Director: Todd Haynes Screenplay: Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Bill Camp, Tim Robbions, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Bill Pullman, Louisa Krause, Kevin Crowley, Bruce Cromer, Denise Dal Vera and Richard Hagerman Distributor: Focus Features
The David-vs-Goliath template for legal dramas, especially fact-based ones, is well established, but it can still be quite effective when the story is a good one and it’s well handled by a skilled director working with a capable cast—Steven Soderbergh’s “Erin Brockovich” (2000) is a case in point. Todd Haynes doesn’t diverge from the rulebook with “Dark Waters”—it’s certainly his most conventional film—but it’s an excellent addition to the genre.
The script by Mario Correa and Michael Michael Carnahan, based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, is a well-realized docu-drama about Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a Cincinnati-based corporate lawyer who switched sides to take on DuPont, the chemical giant, which had knowingly been pouring toxins into the environment around its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, for decades while not informing the government or the public of the danger. Its own workers had been seriously affected, as well as people and animals in the vicinity; the effects also penetrated the bloodstreams of those who used items coated with Teflon, the popular, and profitable, anti-stick compound, the production of which was the origin of the debacle.
The matter has been publicized before, not only in Rich’s exposé but recently in Stephanie Seechtig’s harrowing documentary “The Devil We Know,” which, among other things, followed the case of Bucky Bailey, a local man who was born with serious birth defects and has undergone numerous surgeries over the course of his life. (Bailey appears toward the close of Haynes’s film, but only briefly in a scene at a gas station.) Spanning nearly twenty years, “Dark Waters” is necessarily selective, and makes Bilott as much its protagonist as Brockovich was, but it’s a potent, gripping account of one man’s crusade to uncover—and punish—a disturbing instance of corporate greed and malfeasance.
Bilott is introduced as he joins the partners’ table at Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, a firm specializing in representing corporate clients against lawsuits, including many in the chemical industry. Shortly after being welcomed by his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), Bilott is unceremoniously visited by West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) on the advice of Bilott’s grandmother, who lives in Parkersburg. The blustery old fellow leaves behind boxes of videotapes documenting the decimation of his livestock and ruining of his property by what he claims is chemical pollution from the nearby DuPont plant. And though normally he and his firm would defend the company from such an accusation, Bilott—with grudging acquiescence from Terp—looks into the matter and finds that the assurances of cooperation from the company’s calculating, glad-handing CEO Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) prove hollow as he ultimately tries to bury Bilott—and the case—in an avalanche of documentation provided under discovery orders.
But that makes the lawyer only more determined, and he tenaciously follows stray bits of evidence to identify the source of the danger—a synthetic compound known by the acronym PFOA, the danger of which, he discovers, had been known to DuPont for years. Though it takes a terrible toll on both his health and his marriage (Anne Hathaway plays his long-suffering wife Sarah, who’s concerned about the effects of his obsession until she becomes equally convinced that action is necessary), Bilott, in concert with other lawyers (including Bill Pullman as trial attorney Harry Deitzler), eventually initiates a class-action suit against DuPont that, despite the connivance of the state government, results in victory, although it requires a protracted process of medical testing that prolongs the agony (as well as convincing federal agencies to get involved in the regulation of synthetic chemical compounds). And as the film (as well as Seechtig’s documentary) makes clear, the fight is not nearly over; the effect of PFOA in the global environment—not just that of West Virginia and Ohio—remains potentially damaging.
The screenplay of “Dark Waters” necessarily compresses events, and as edited by Affonso Goncalves the intricacies of the legal maneuvering are not always ideally clear, especially as new characters (like the Kigers, played by Mare Willingham and Richard Hagerman) are introduced as integral to the proceedings. Nor are the ambivalent reactions of Parkersburg residents, most of whom depended on DuPont for their livelihood (as did the town government) presented as fully as one might like.
But Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan stick quite closely to the facts, and Haynes, along with cinematographer Edward Lachlan and production designer Hannah Beachler, give the visuals a gritty, realistic feel, only occasionally opting for sequences (a fire across from the Kiger house, a tense walk by Bilott in a nearly deserted parking garage) that feed into a tone of paranoia familiar from seventies films like “All the President’s Men.” (Lachman’s work here is far different from the lushness he brought to Haynes’s “Far from Heaven.”)
Ruffalo, who also produced, anchors the film with a committed performance of a man who simply refuses to give up, despite the odds he faces, and he’s seconded by Camp’s memorable turn as Tennant, whose gruffly impatient manner reflects the years of suffering and loss he and his family have endured. Hathaway, Robbins, Pullman, Winningham and Hagerman provide staunch support, and Garber makes a smooth, slick villain. At a time when environmental controls are more likely to be rescinded than enforced by the federal government, “Dark Waters” offers a salutary reminder that it’s unwise to depend on corporate self-regulation to ensure the public interest. One can only hope that people are still willing to listen.