If the title suggests a kind of horror story to you, you’re not wrong.
Having recently made partner at his Cincinnati, Ohio firm, Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) with a box of video tapes and big problem: the animals on his farm getting sick and acting deranged. The issue began shortly after the local big chemical company DuPont bought the neighboring property for use as a landfill for their Washington Works plant. No one in his home town of Parkersburg, West Virginia was willing to take the case… or foolish enough to jeopardize their careers doing so. With family in the Mid-Ohio Valley, Bilott initially takes the case to satisfy the Tennants as a pro bono peace-of-mind favor, but the casual investigation quickly hints at a coverup, an unthinkable trade-off of improving a small town’s living standards while at the same knowingly poisoning it… and it didn’t stop there.
Based upon the New York Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” the film lays out the timeline from discovery to trials after a small-town farmer blows the whistle on a respected corporation, a literal David and Goliath story. With the company’s name plastered all over the town in goodwill donations and kids being raised to eventually work there as adults, it’s no wonder folks would be resistant to believe one of their principle employers would be intentionally negligent; why would you put your workforce and the community where it resides in jeopardy?
The answer is obvious: money, and boatloads of it. In any other year, this film would probably be being hyped for awards contention on casting and performance similar to Ruffalo’s own Spotlight. Already entering a crowded field this year, it may get overlooked but deserves attention. Care was taken in the same way the original NYT article was presented to make the dangers clear, how a major corporation interpreted and intentionally manipulated Environmental Protection Agency laws to conceal a known-to-them hazard while netting profits of a billion dollars per year. What’s pushed front and center is corporate disconnection and plausible deniability, confronting the people who profit from lives being lost… happy as long as they don’t have to see the damage done.
When viewers realize the toll that years of investigation and litigation took upon the families involved, it’s clear why big companies hire law firms to drag their feet any way they can. Plaintiffs die or lose interest, leadership and laws change, and big money can alter facts to address concerns without changing anything at all; just move a decimal point or re-classify a standard until everything goes away. The cast of Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, and Bill Pullman all get their big speech and soundbite moments, so it’s clear why they were included. Bill Camp’s role as Wilbur Tennant steals his scenes, a simple man of conviction who understands his role of sacrifice to ensure future generations. Even a visual device of showing a simple timeline is used to sinister effect, infusing angst and dread every time the year increases. The film stresses the importance of a man like Rob Bilott willing to keep leading the charge but also of folks like Wilbur Tennant to keep sounding the alarm until someone listens.
In the current political climate both domestic and international, self-regulating industries are becoming the norm rather than an exception: “you can trusts us to regulate ourselves.” Unfortunately, when corporations transcend borders and politicians can profit without oversight, what the rest of the people don’t know can kill them… and their offspring, should their parents be lucky enough to survive long enough to have any.
Dark Waters is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images, strong language, why laws matter and why you should be paying more attention.
A four skull recommendation out of four
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