“Dark Waters” Is Earnest, Essential Viewing for Our Synthetic Chemical Age

“Dark Waters” Is Earnest, Essential Viewing for Our Synthetic Chemical Age December 8, 2019

With Dark Waters, we’ve now had two films in the past five years featuring the du Pont oligarchs of Delaware.  Foxcatcher, you may recall, starred Steve Carell as murdering supercreep John du Pont.

After watching this latest film from master director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Carol), I’m thinking John was the good seed of the du Pont family.  The malevolence on display here – and I have no doubt that Focus Features’ attorneys scrupulously pored over Dark Waters’ highly detailed screenplay for any inaccuracies – put me in mind of Nazi doctors and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine profile by journalist Nathaniel Rich, Dark Waters centers on the efforts of an unlikely duo.  As the film opens, Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has just been named partner in a major Cincinnati law firm specializing in corporate defense, with clients like Exxon and Union Carbide.  Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a small farmer from West Virginia, shows up at Bilott’s door, pleading with him to accept his case.

Bill Camp and Mark Ruffalo, in “Dark Waters”

An acquaintance of Bilott’s grandmother, Tennant has been turned away by local attorneys afraid to take on their city’s biggest employer.  His calls have been ignored by DuPont, local officials, and the EPA.  But with a scientist’s rigor, Tennant has collected video footage and tissue samples documenting the tumors and erratic behavior changes that have afflicted and killed almost 200 of his cows since DuPont started dumping waste next door.

Dark Waters can be seen as a celebration of diligence triumphing over resistance, personified in Bilott.  At a black tie dinner, a DuPont exec played by Victor Garber hisses a loud “f**k you!”  to Bilott’s queries.  Soon after, he conveys a passive-aggressive f**k you, when in response to Bilott’s lawsuit, he sends enough documents to fill the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse.

Todd Haynes’ film can equally be viewed as an enraged lament over the unstoppable vileness of today’s megacorporations.  In one of a handful of effective montages, Bilott steadily opens the boxes of discovery material and forms a coherent narrative of five decades of wrongdoing.  The DuPont complex in Tennant’s city was the discoverer and manufacturer of Teflon.  Originally waterproofing WW2 tanks, it was used most prolifically and profitably on no-stick frying pans, generating $1 billion annually for DuPont.

Yet the company knew the synthetic long-chain hydrocarbon comprising Teflon was responsible for birth defects, taking women off its assembly lines (but only temporarily, once DuPont suits realized the optics of this move were unfavorable).  They knew it was toxic if inhaled, after compelling employees to smoke Teflon-laced cigarettes and seeing them fall gravely ill, some even dying.

And it only gets worse from there.  Another montage compresses seven hours of interrogation by Bilott, laying out toxic effect after toxic effect from this chemical released into the air, ground, and water of Parkersburg, West Virginia, and ultimately distributed into innumerable kitchens worldwide.

As we learn of these perils, Haynes’ camera increasingly lingers on common household and office objects – water fountains, a toddler’s plastic toys, a baggie of baby carrots – imparting a sinister valence to them.  In general, Haynes clamps down on the stylistic flourishes that bestowed such visual beauty to his pair of most recent films, Carol and Wonderstuck.

Instead, skewed camera angles symbolize perverted values and priorities.  These cues subtly italicize dialogue exposing a rigged social structure:  the EPA only regulates chemicals that companies tell them are unsafe, as gag orders and confidentiality agreements shield commoners from truth.  Similarly, Haynes’ color scheme of sickly yellows, browns, and greens are apt for a poisoned world, while translucent windows and screens signify the barriers to accessing hidden facts.

Mark Ruffalo, as Robert Bilott, in “Dark Waters”

Both Mark Ruffalo and Bill Camp are excellent here, as the moral centers of Dark Waters.  Ruffalo – I suspect his face was prosthetically altered to give it a fleshier look – is decidedly not in glittery movie star mode, but projects humility, goodness, and grit.  We the audience feel the emotional and physical toll his vocation extracts from him.  Bill Camp, usually relegated to slimy supporting roles, shows here that he can just as convincingly depict plain-speaking, decent, ordinary folk.

Anne Hathaway, like Ruffalo, tamps down on the glamor factor as Sarah Bilott.  As Robert’s wife – and devout Catholic – she’s given up her lawyer job to raise their sons.  Like Robert’s boss, played by Tim Robbins, she largely represents the important people in Robert’s life who alternately doubt and support his obsessive pursuit of justice.

Haynes has infused Dark Waters with an unflagging momentum, felt from its 1970s prologue to the closing credits.  If there’s a fault to his film, it’s an earnestness that is sometimes too on-the-nose.  A couple of monologues cross the line dividing expositional commentary from sermonizing.

Yet, our society unarguably benefits from such earnestness.  When PTFE (the synthetic polymer trademarked as Teflon) can be detected in nearly every living creature on our planet, when PTFE is one of 600 known “forever chemicals” manufactured by the likes of 3M (Scotch Gard) and DuPont, educated rage is the only appropriate response.

(On a personal note, every weekday, I see firsthand the passive acceptance of toxic corporate power.  The city where I’ve worked for the past three years – Kingsport, Tennessee – is headquarters to the Eastman Chemical Company.  Routinely, the air reeks of sulfur or overpowers with the saturated stench of a photo lab.  Yet, I’ve never heard a Kingsport resident comment on the stench, so conditioned are they to it.  But could an unbiased outsider sincerely believe that breathing this air and drinking the local water are harmless activities?)

So, thank you, Todd Haynes and Robert Bilott, for your earnestness.  Bill Camp’s character gets its right, exhorting Ruffalo to “put ‘em behind bars.”  I ache for the day when our prisons, instead of bulging with addiction sufferers, are filled to capacity with the corporate scientists and executives turning our world into a Superfund site.


(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )


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