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Issue #1898      December 11, 2019

Dark Waters

DuPont chemical’s toxic profits

All one needs to know about American corporate capitalism is brilliantly laid out in Mark Ruffalo’s new movie Dark Waters. Big company, in this case DuPont, manufactures toxic nightmare. Results fatal. Cover-up just as scary. Story heart-wrenching, infuriating and all true.

West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant’s cows are dying. Over half of a once healthy herd succumbs to grisly deaths, leaving a trail of badly distorted corpses. When he gets no answers to these unnatural circumstances and unsettling remains, Tennant seeks out a family friend, lawyer Rob Bilott.

Ruffalo is Bilott, a corporate defence attorney with a conscience. He lifts the film, just as Bilott carried the enormous weight of the class action law suit against the DuPont Chemical Company. The character development is fleshed out by a stellar cast, as well as non-actor, actual participants in the litigation.

Tim Robbins does quite a good turn as the conflicted head of Bilott’s law firm who is won over by the issues. Anne Hathaway, as she reminds us in the film, is more than just a lawyer’s wife. She is conscience, moral support, emotional sounding board and partner.

As Rob Bilott pulls the threads of what happened to Tennant’s herd together, he realizes that something is drastically amiss. Dupont’s new chemical creations seem to do more than provide Teflon coating for pans, lubricants and building materials. As medical casualties in the surrounding community added up, the corporation suppressed physical signals and secretively dumped injurious chemical debris.

Bilott relentlessly trudges through massive data, overcomes objections from within his own law firm and helps organise chemical victims to fight back. The effort jeopardises his own marriage and family. From persistence to obstinacy, he wins grudging support, changing the nature of his law practice and the lives of those exposed.

Dark Waters director Todd Haynes’s linear storytelling is economical and efficient. He follows the track graphically, weeding through a complex of characters, hemming in the centrifugal force of the huge interminable law suit that spread over 20 years, 3500 plaintiffs and 600 million dollars in damages.

Perhaps because of DuPont’s bitter attempt to stretch the verdicts out beyond the lives of the plaintiffs, the film does not have the exuberance, insouciance and joy of Erin Brockovich. Award-winning cinematographer Ed Lachman, who also worked on Erin Brockovich, has created a more appropriately dark, grim landscape out of the industrial wasteland that DuPont so cynically reshaped.

The current deconstruction of American courts and the Environmental Protection Agency by the Trump administration would seem to offer little relief from corporate despoliation such as that found by the Dark Waters victims. Thus, the film illustrates the need of determined public interest lawyers like Rob Bilott to enlist more support from union activists, community organisers and environmentally conscious politicians.

People’s World

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