Dark Waters–Still an Abyss

Dark Waters is a 2019 American legal thriller  directed by Todd Haynes (“Carol” and “Far from Heaven”).  The movie dramatizes the whistleblowing story of a cover-up of toxic waste.  We see close up the  corporate corruption involving Dupont’s manufacturing of Teflon.  The hero is Robert Bilott, (played by Mark Ruffalo of “I Know This Much is True”) an Ohio lawyer who spends more than  eighteen years proving that DuPont was responsible for poisoning the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia with unregulated “forever” chemicals.

Based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, Dark Waters takes us on the journey by a tenacious attorney, Rob Bilott  to uncover the  dark secret hidden by one of the US’s most illustrious corporations–DuPont.  “Better Living Through Chemistry–DuPont’s advertising jingle–this is not. 

A growing number of unexplained farm animal deaths are brought to Bilott’s attention when a friend of his grandmother’s brings videotapes of pollution, dying cattle with gross mutations, and assorted abnormalities  on his farm.  Bilott naively believes when he brings this to DuPont’s attention,  they will comply voluntarily with the self-regulation of their toxic chemicals for the community’s welfare.

In the process of expecting cooperation, he risks everything — his future career, his family, and his own life — to expose the truth. DuPont has known for years through their own corporate research, that they were responsible for a shocking increase in cancer,  birth defects, death of livestock, and polluted river beds. They fight the lawsuit with the standard practice of deluging the plaintiff lawyer  with hundreds of boxes of documents, indirect and more direct threats of loss of employment, and corporate croneyism. 

This is no “Erin Brockovich”, but it is a close second. Corporate profits of over $1 billion per year were not going to be sacrificed by the regulation of their most profitable and monopolized product.  Dupont is caught in multiple lies from the CEO  on down, the company’s defenses refuted by the their  own studies.  Dark Waters highlights the necessity of compliance by independent agencies like the EPA and intrepid attorneys like Bilott.  Both are essential partners, as the EPA lacked power and failed to use what little regulatory authority they did have to eradicate Teflon from the market. 

 By the end of the film, we learn that 99% of everyone on the planet has Teflon in their bodies. A powerful multinational corporation aligned with the US government let this happen.  

Mark Ruffalo truly identifies with Bilott, giving an outstanding interpretation of the contribution the attorney has made to public safety. In outtakes at the end of the film, Rob Bilott and his wife are invited on set and interviewed.  In addition, victims who suffered from birth defects due to the chemicals in Teflon appear.  Several  victims  appear in the movie and one has a brief cameo role as well. 

Although DuPont should have suffered more, I highly recommend Dark Waters.

Availability: Netflix DVD and Amazon Prime streaming.

Note:   Teflon and its chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) are still available in markets worldwide.

Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8 by Callie Lyons, a Mid-Ohio Valley journalist, was the first book to uncover the DuPont coverup at their site in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  And read the  follow-up on Lyons’ coverage in the May 2007 article in Mother Jones, “Teflon is Forever”

“Blindness” –Seeing is Believing

 

Blindness

Based on a popular novel by the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago, Blindness (2008) is a dystopian tale of survival in the face of a pandemic.

 Blindness opens with an affluent Japanese businessman suddenly blocking traffic during rush hour. Inexplicably blinded, he is unable to continue driving and a seemingly good Samaritan offers to help him. When they arrive at the Japanese man’s upscale apartment, however, the “good Samaritan” steals his car and escapes. Soon the entire city is overtaken by a pandemic of “white blindness”, like driving in a snow storm. The pandemic becomes global.

The tale of survival begins. Quarantined in an abandoned mental asylum, the rules of society soon come to a screeching halt with the powerful preying on the weak. Only one woman (Julianne Moore), whose husband (Mark Ruffalo) ironically, is an eye doctor now blinded— is the witness to horrific acts. Keeping her sight a secret, she guides the blind, surviving what has become a totalitarian government imposing ruthless measures on the blind in order to maintain control and subjugation. Meanwhile, the residents are becoming increasingly hopeless and desperate, fearful of their circumstances, and taken advantage by a tyrannical “Ward 3” leader (Gael Garcia Bernal). The insurrection against the despot results in chaos and brutality towards each other.

Blindness depicts the difference between civilized society and a totally barbaric one as the thinnest of boundaries. The norms of society are fragile and easily broken. Blindness, like Lord of the Flies, raises the question: What would I do in such a situation? A thought-provoking and well-executed film!

“Spotlight” –Illuminating Corruption and Cover-up

SpotlightIn this Academy Award-nominated film, Spotlight (on my Top Ten Films for 2015) reveals the 2002 exposé into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child molestation and rape by priests taking place over two decades.

Unflinching in its focus, “Spotlight” underscores a subtle outrage and sense of resignation about the power of institutions. We watch as the “Spotlight “ team—named for undercover exposés of difficult-to-prove cases– chases down leads; goes through archives with missing documents; and interviews priests, judges, and victims. The investigative Spotlight team at the Boston Globe is defined by their tenacity as they overcome powerful political interests committed to crushing their investigation.

Investigative journalism seems so “old-school” in our sound-bite, entertainment culture, but Spotlight deftly recognizes the heroism of the Boston Globe’s team, in a similar fashion to “All The President’s Men”. Igniting an almost unbelievable, worldwide scandal, the Boston Globe clearly demonstrates a conspiracy on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to protect priests while silencing the victims and their families. The impact on a predominantly Catholic city, the guilt of those who chose to ignore its victims and the adversarial response of the Catholic Church are not the major themes of “Spotlight”.

“Spotlight” excels at building up the sense of injustice and outrage over the young victims who have no voice. Only the Catholic archdiocese and the legal system that is entwined with it have the powerful voice of defense and obfuscation. Despite the fact that we all know the repercussions of this narrative, seeing it through the eyes of these reporters has its own power.

The ensemble cast–John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo as the main reporters, and Liev Schreiber and Michael Keaton as their editors—keeps the focus on the true story of institutional corruption and cowardice that fails the young victims of sexual abuse. Perhaps one of the most unforgettable and stunning scenes is between Rachel McAdams (playing a reporter) and a priest who tries to explain his motivation for child rape. McAdams’s quiet, perfectly calibrated and understated response is truly an award-worthy performance in and of itself.

Like its predecessor “All The President’s Men”, “Spotlight” is a paen to the courage of journalists who feel compelled to tell a story full of ugliness that few want to see.

[As a postscript I would have also liked to see the voice of a young victim in flashback, and the toll incurred on him as a young adult when he finally comes forth to tell his story. The victims all had unhealed wounds, based on secrets and lies they had to endure for decades.]

“Foxcatcher”—Let This One Go

'Foxcatcher" the movie
‘Foxcatcher” the movie

“Foxcatcher” is director Bennett Miller’s explorations into the dark side of sports. Based on true events, “Foxcatcher” retells the dark and tragic story of the megalomaniac multimillionaire, John E. (“Eagle”) du Pont (played by the unrecognizable Steve Carrell). A failed wrestler himself, du Pont lavishes a fraction of his fortune onto the Schultz brothers whom he hopes will win the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Most of the scenes are shot near du Pont’s Foxcatcher estate in rural Pennsylvania.

Flattered by du Pont’s attention and financial support, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) gradually views his benefactor as a father figure, becoming increasingly dependent on du Pont for approval and for his own sense of self-worth. We do not quite know Mark’s intellectual capabilities, an omission that prevents our understanding of his character. Tatum occasionally acts as if his character as a below-average IQ who is not only an emotionally vulnerable young athlete but unable to grasp the threatening situation he is in.

Stephen Carrell and Channing Tatum
Stephen Carrell and Channing Tatum

Some things money can’t buy. Only the older brother, Dave Schultz (a superbly underplayed performance by Mark Ruffalo) realizes the critical balance between competition and personal values and yet he too succumbs to the duPont mystique, partly for the sake of supporting his younger brother. DuPont himself, however, is not simply a philanthropist interested in patriotism and the gold-medal He was also a damaged, unlikeable and unstable person. Hints are revealed that du Pont’s relationship with his mother (a subdued performance by Vanessa Redgrave) is toxic, and that his every action is a reaction to her. From his own dysfunctional family experience, du Pont is bewildered by and incapable of understanding Dave’s devotion to his family and independence from du Pont’s financial control.

While the narrative is a tale of fury and tragedy, Carrell imbues DuPont with a personality so distant, emotionally remote, and obsessive-compulsive that we do not intuit his backstory in depth, at least not sufficiently to understand his need to compensate for a lack of love (blame it on the mother!) The camera slowly pans over acreage demonstrating great wealth and focusing on weapons and trophies, but the silent storm of du Pont’s psyche is not revealed in a dramatic enough way to justify the slow pace and the gaps in the psychological landscape. “Foxcatcher” could have been a high-quality film but let this one go.