A well-crafted film telling an important David vs. Goliath story for today’s political landscape.
“If you’re losing hope, you’re not doing enough.”
This was Mark Ruffalo’s very matter-of-fact response when the moderator of a Q&A livestream for Dark Waters inquired what we the audience could do to further the film’s call to action in a world where it so often feels like we have lost hope that our actions even matter. The sentiment behind that comment can be felt all throughout the film itself.
Dark Waters is based on a January 2016 New York Times article by Nathaniel Rich and tells the decades-spanning story of Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) and his efforts to expose DuPont for knowingly polluting the community surrounding one of their chemical factories for half a century. In 1998, Bilott was working as a corporate defense attorney and newly promoted partner at his firm. Far more likely to defend the DuPonts of the world in his work, his life was forever altered when a West Virginia farmer arrives in his Cincinnati office with a box filled with homemade VHS tapes. Wilbur Tennant, vigorously portrayed by Bill Camp, is convinced that DuPont’s nearby landfill has contaminated the water near his farm and directly led to the death of 190 of his cattle. The reason he’s reached out to Bilott? Because all of the local lawyers are scared to death of DuPont and he just happens to know Bilott’s “Grammers” who bragged about her bigwig grandson environment lawyer.
Bilott initially takes on the case out of a sense of loyalty to his past and the realization that this farm was a childhood haunt of his but when he reviews the evidence and identifies that there could very well be something darker and more sinister at play, he finds himself an unwitting David to DuPont’s Goliath.
Apart from a prologue involving a trio of teenagers skinny dipping in a watering hole near a DuPont plant in 1975, Director Todd Haynes and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa craft this story chronologically year by year between the 1998 meeting of Bilott and Tennant and 2015 (with end cards summarizing events that have followed into the 2019 present day). Each new year is introduced by way of a brief title card to establish the time and place. This motif is best utilized to show the time between milestones in the case, when years go by without any scenes of note. These gaps, shown simply as years ticking up on the screen, represent the snail’s pace that can exist in cases like this and how that time can be weaponized against the less powerful. Real people lose their lives during those years while the law and science try to play catch up in a system that has been rigged against the little guy.
Ruffalo portrays Bilott as a man constantly on the verge of buckling under the weight of the world that has been set upon his shoulders. When he discovers that DuPont has been knowingly poisoning people for decades, we see him struggling with the enormity of that revelation because despite being legally classified as people, we’ll never see corporations like DuPont physically bear that burden. Camp’s Tennant, on the other hand, reflects a firebrand “rage against the machine” mentality. Furious over how DuPont has upended his life and community, he never shies away from expressing his feelings that what they are doing is evil and the company and the people running it should be forced to suffer the harshest of punishments.
Some of the film’s most striking visuals come from Haynes’ ability to represent how isolated the “heroes” of our story can feel in these kinds of “whistleblower” films. Bilott alone in a dimly-lit room packed wall-to-wall with 40 years of bosed-up documents to sift through. Tennant on the receiving end of cold glares from his community at a diner or church after a newspaper article paints him as nothing more than a “disgruntled farmer” suing the area’s largest employer. Joe and Darlene Kiger – the lead plaintiffs in a class-action suit against DuPont – watching in horror as a home across from their own burns, wondering if the apparent arson might have been meant for them. Whistleblowers are supposed to be protected but as we can see in the headlines even today, they often wind up with a target on their back just as big as the people or entities they are trying to expose and suffer consequences despite having theoretically done nothing wrong.
While the central plot carries the film, there are a couple of small threads that feel like they could have been left on the cutting room floor. Anne Hathaway’s supporting wife Sarah encounters some by-the-numbers sexism from an older partner at her husband’s firm when she describes having given up her own law career to become a stay-at-home mother and one of Bilott’s female co-workers mentions keeping her pregnancy a secret from the partners as long as she can to avoid the damage that revelation will have on her career. A brief mention years later seems to reinforce the sexism by suggesting the woman has still not been made a partner but without a greater focus, it comes across as a setup for something that never feels paid off.
“We protect us!” is the rallying cry first introduced by Tennant, realizing that the legal system and government won’t. After years of fighting and trying to hold DuPont accountable, Bilott himself eventually echoes this sentiment. That notion becomes the call to action of the film itself. As we see all too often, institutions have been shaped over time to protect those in power rather than defending the powerless. This film – much like Ruffalo’s “if you’re losing hope, you’re not doing enough” quote – implores the audience to fight against the idea that the system is too broken to be fixed. That’s what the powerful, billion-dollar organizations of the world want people to think because they can only be held accountable when people speak up and act to protect themselves. Whistleblower films like Dark Waters remind people that there is hope, even against seemingly insurmountable odds, but sometimes we have to fight for it.
8.5 / 10
That Great Film
- Quiet, introspective Mark Ruffalo performance
- Bill Camp’s rage
- Portraits of isolation
- Unexplored narrative threads
- The frustration that DuPont’s eventual punishment doesn’t feel like justice when viewed against the weight of the crimes
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