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”

“Carol”—A Salty Portrayal

Carol

 

The Academy-Award nominated film, “Carol”, starring Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, a department store “shop girl” deals with a lesbian romance set against the closeted and intolerant era of 1950s America. First titled “The Price of Salt” (and retitled “Carol” in 1990) , the novel was controversial when first published in 1952 prompting the author, Patricia Highsmith, to use a pen name. Other books of the time exploring the same subject, tended to have the heroine devolve into suicide or madness, if lesbianism was even hinted at .

Highsmith apparently drew from her own experience to portray that even a very wealthy woman had to stay under the radar. “Carol” ferociously depicts the discrimination and personal torment that lesbian women faced in the fifties. The romance between Carol and Therese is the major plot, as well as the entrapment in a society’s mores that doesn’t allow them to love.

This could easily have been one of the best movies of 2015, but it is not. I liked it but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. The family dysfunction beautifully displayed at Christmas time (symbolic of family and stress) is not balanced. What should have been a torrid love affair implied between Therese and Carol falls flat. The chemistry between the two actresses was glaringly missing.

Tightly controlled and magnetic performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (as well as Kyle Chandler as the offended husband of Carol) are slowed down by director Todd Haynes (of “Far From Heaven”) who seems to focus on visual scenes at the expense of the storytelling. “Carol” expresses not only a story about two generous souls falling in love but also the mindset of a society entrenched in hard-hearted “values”.

 

 

“Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear bemoans in the famous Shakespearean scene. And so does Mildred Pierce as the mother who must suffer the unbearable pain of loving her decidedly unlovable elder daughter Veda. “Mildred Pierce”, the five-part HBO miniseries based on a 1941 book by James M. Cain, is a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (of Mommy Dearest fame) and turns Mommy Dearest upside down. Nominated for a record 21 Emmy awards, Kate Winslet mesmerizes in the title role.

After divorcing her philandering husband, Mildred learns to develop her self-worth first through waitressing, slowly understanding and appreciating what the working class woman must endure. Her older daughter, Veda, however, venomously taunts her mother about their lack of money, their reduced social status, and living in Glendale instead of a tonier part of Los Angeles. Veda even assumes a British accent to fantasize about the life she thinks she deserves, not the life she is living.

Mildred is vehemently blind to the sacrifices she is making for her two daughters, forgiving the unforgivable. Desperate to maintain her home and her daughters’ future, her only marketable skill seems to be making pies. I had to suspend my disbelief that Mildred Pierce could be so successful owning and managing three upscale restaurants during the Depression.

The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this series, with deep wounds on both sides. Mildred encourages the arrogance and self-entitlement in Veda, even against her better judgment. There is a hint that Mildred believes some of the accusations her daughter makes and is ashamed. Veda is angry and resentful, but we are not quite aware of how ugly her sense of abandonment is nor how lonely she must have been. Veda’s mind is irreparably sinister and damaged and Mildred never quite grasps the daughter’s true nature.

Mildred lacks common sense too. Blind to her own neediness, she falls for the slacker, Monty (smarmily portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man of great wealth who seems to enjoy playing polo and drinking, but not much else. Soon Mildred’s life starts spiraling downward in assuming a more lavish lifestyle to please Monty and Veda, now a young and promising singer (played chillingly by Evan Rachel Wood).

Director Todd Haynes explores Depression-era economic hardship and the pettiness of married life, with scathing scenes reminiscent of the intimate detail he brought to the superb “Far From Heaven.” Here he again captures the mood and time of a given period with intricate details and faithful attention to the nuances of life’s options for those of a given social class. After a very slow-paced start we have come to expect from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or other BBC costume dramas, “Mildred Pierce” becomes increasingly riveting. There are a few unfortunate lapses in dialogue that jerk you into wondering what the writers could possibly have been thinking. For example, “Want to get stinko anyone?”

Winslet underplays the role, allowing the subtleties of her transformation to surface slowly, resulting in startling and powerful responses to acts of betrayal from those she loves so blindly. Evan Rachel Wood is every bit Kate Winslet’s match in scene after scene in their snake-fanged relationship.

This HBO series enters virtually uninhabited territory, the disintegration of a fundamental relationship–between mother and daughter–into one of terror and agony. Far from the commercial blockbuster theatrics we are exposed to over and over again, “Mildred Pierce” deals with the unmentionable and incomprehensible. I loved it!