When Cincinnati-based corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) – a man used to working to protect companies accused of polluting practices – is visited by farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), he finds himself being asked to visit the nearby town of Parkersburg, West Virginia. With Parkersburg home to DuPont, one of the largest chemical producers in the World, Tennant’s farm is suffering from a high incidences of livestock deaths, along with unexplained tumours and organ problems in the animals, while Wilbur and his wife are starting to suffer from ill health, and the other residents of the town are starting to suffer with issues such as blackened teeth.
As Tennant is an acquaintance of Robert’s grandmother, Bilott is happy to make enquiries of DuPont attorney Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber). In filing a suit in order to get information about the chemicals that may have been dumped in the area, he is, at first, unable to find anything. Theorising, however, that the pollution could be caused by materials not regulated by the Environment Protection Agency, Robert is led into a 20-year fight to learn the specifics of DuPont’s behaviour and its effect on the people of Parkersburg; while his marriage comes under strain, his career is placed under threat, and the safety of all who speak out is compromised.
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With Dark Waters arriving around the same time as the documentary Flint: The Poisoning of an American City, there seems to be something in the water – literally and figuratively. This film is a reflection of the time in which we live – a time where environmental concerns have never been more pressing, yet our trust in the corporations that serve us, and the regulatory bodies that protect us, have never been weaker. Where Flint suffers from a disenfranchised, poverty stricken population, lacking the tools to fight entrenched power, Robert Bilott is portrayed, rather implausibly given his background in corporate law, as the David taking on DuPont’s Goliath.
For those wondering, the key chemical under discussion here is PFOA. This is a substance used in the making of Teflon; a substance coating most non-stick frying pans. The film is somewhat misleading, as it discusses the substance as though it is Teflon itself. A little reading around uncovers that it is something largely dissipated during the manufacturing process. The audience could easily walk out of Dark Waters with the impression – given that we are told that PFOA is in the blood of ninety-nine percent of life on Earth – that we all have a dangerous level of this toxic chemical in us. What happened in Parkersburg is removed from the experience of the general non-stick pan user, and the film is irresponsible in not making this clearer.
That said, the story is effective is explaining how the substance came to be used (originally designed to protect military tanks from the elements), how the cover-up was executed, and the catastrophic effect on families of that deception. In particular, Bill Camp is terrific as the tragic Wilbur Tennant, while Ruffalo himself is convincing in all aspects of his role. His character is a family man, an effective lawyer, and needs to be someone we can believe arguing a case forcefully in court; yet he has to be crumpled, increasingly dishevelled (as the events of the film take a toll), and convincing as someone less powerful than those he is opposing. He has to display passion for the case, but not carry an overwhelming interest, as his concerns for events is supposed to grow through his exposure to the injustices. There could not have been a better casting for this role.
Less successful are the interpersonal relationships. Tim Robbins is a little wasted as Robert’s boss – an empathetic man, concerned for his employee, but equally aware of the risks to the company of taking this case on. Also neglected by the film is Anne Hathaway as Robert’s wife, Sarah. We see little of what makes this couple tick as a partnership and, as such, she is reduced to standing in their kitchen looking worried.
For all of the contemporary concerns reflected in Dark Waters, it is reminiscent in tone and plotting of a 1990s John Grisham novel. The man against the system trope, played as an effective procedural – but one lacking in any sense of levity at all – is very much that type of work. Much like 2000’s Erin Brockovich, it plays like a TV film with a movie cast. This is far from a criticism, as Dark Waters represents well-played, well-told storytelling, on a subject that, as with Flint, needs the widest possible exposure, if only to increase the call for greater corporate accountability and stronger regulation. It is lacking, however, in anything that elevates it beyond a sequence of interesting events. Though no-one would expect comedic elements from such a work, the lack of any variation in tone at all does render the film a little pedestrian. The subject matter alone renders this film recommended, but films with messages need to be more entertaining if the filmmakers want that message to resonate.