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Dark Waters
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Dark Waters is a true-life legal thriller about a corporate lawyer named Robert Bilott who discovers that one of the world's largest corporations, DuPont, is linked to a number of unexplained deaths and other health issues. With the reluctant approval of his employer, a firm that usually defends chemical companies, he embarks on a David vs. Goliath quest to expose the truth, putting at risk his career, his family, and his own life. We’ve seen this movie before; it’s often based on a true story that exposes the evils of huge companies who pollute the drinking or ground water to save a few billion dollars. These companies are so big they can afford armies of lawyers, making it nearly impossible to successfully win a judgment against them; and armies of lobbyists who urge Congress to rewrite laws so that their criminal and immoral behaviors are no longer technically illegal; and rivers of cash to quietly settle or make lawsuits go away. Every once in a while, one of these companies is exposed by an important legal case, but rarely are any of them brought down. 

Films of this genre either simplify the narrative to make a complicated case into a heroic success story, where the plucky lawyer wins the case in the end, or they tell a darker version of this all-too-true tale—still simplistic but often closer to reality—in which the legal victory is so hard won and so dragged out, often long past the deaths of the people who initiate the case, that it seems to matter only in principle. Dark Waters is the later. It’s an intentionally repetitive, frustrating procedural that explores how Sisyphean this type of legal action can be. That’s not a fault of the movie; it is its main strength.

In adapting Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine profile of Bilott, screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs, Deepwater Horizon, 21 Bridges) and Mario Correa eschew the usual techniques Hollywood screenwriters employ when fictionalizing a real-life drama—like turning ordinary supporting players into memorable big-screen characters and rearranging the facts of a case in order to heighten the stakes at certain key moments. But, like any feature that covers a complex story that takes place over decades, Dark Waters truncates events, invents composite characters, and stages sequences (one key scene that takes place in a deposition room in particular) that feel credible only in spirit. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking these necessary liberties, but neither is it wrong to turn real people into memorable characters that grip and engage audiences when making a fact-based feature film.

And since the cases this movie depicts, like all major environmental actions, were not, in reality, won singlehandedly by one lone crusading lawyer—countless activists, journalists, environmental groups, and community members are required for legal actions like these to succeed—the picture shouldn’t score extra points for being more “authentic” than mainstream entertainments about real-life crusading lawyers such as Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action. This story features plenty of folks who could potentially have been depicted as the type of characters that make a depressing picture like this one more pleasurable to watch—Bill Pullman shows up at one point as a smiling country lawyer Bilott must team up with and we think, “ahh this guy will lighten the picture up a bit,” but he exits the narrative as quickly and uneventfully as he enters it. Tim Robbins does a fine job in the small role of the senior partner at Bilott’s firm. He has a couple of choice lines that bring a fresh perspective to this tall, old, white guy in a suit roll. Anne Hathaway does her best to make the character of Bilott’s wife more than the standard, put-upon wife whose commitment to her husband is tested to the point of collapse by his dogged single-minded commitment to his case. But most of the scenes involving these two fine actors are far too similar to the countless scenes we’ve seen in other movies of this ilk, where the boss and the wife want to be supportive but just aren’t as committed as the protagonist. 

Fortunately, the protagonist here is compelling. Mark Ruffalo, an actor fully capable of grandstanding and chewing scenery with the best of them, gives a suitably understated performance as Bilott. And the wonderful character actor Bill Camp (Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, Loving) brings dignity and distinction to the role of the farmer who first contacts Bilott when his cows start going mad and dying. The virtually unrecognizable Camp’s supporting performance here is probably too small and underplayed to be noticed by the Academy, but it should be.

The film is directed by Todd Haynes (The Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, I’m Not There), who seems an odd choice for this straightforward legal procedural with no room for the signature cinematic playfulness this filmmaker is known for. But Dark Waters is an interesting contrast to Haynes’ 1995 film Safe, another picture about the potential effects of modern life’s toxins. Unlike the possibly imagined invisible poisons of Safe, the chemical depicted in Dark Waters is the very real fluoropolymer that gave us Teflon—the revolutionary non-stick coating for pans and other cookware developed by DuPont. The fact that many people still cook with Teflon, despite the indisputable dangers that were proven as a result of this case, is reason enough to see this movie. It’s just unfortunate Haynes and the screenwriters could not come up with ways to tell this story in a fresh way or, barring that, in an old-fashioned way that might have resonated more powerfully. 

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A straightforward telling of a story we've seen unfortunately too many times; Ruffalo is suitably understated as a corporate lawyer who spends 20 years trying to expose DuPont's culpability in deaths and health issues caused by Teflon. 
Directed by Todd Haynes
Produced by Mark Ruffalo, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, and Jeff Skoll

Written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan
Based on the New York Times Magazine article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare" by Nathaniel Rich

With: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, William Jackson Harper, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Victor Garber, Louisa Krause, and Bill Camp

Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Editing: Affonso Gonçalves
Music: Marcelo Zarvos

Runtime: 126 min
Release Date: 06 December 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color