‘Dark Waters’ plunges into ‘forever chemicals’

Jake Coyle & By Lindsey Bahr

AP – Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, about the prolonged (and ongoing) legal fight to uncover the environmental damage of cancer-inducing “forever chemicals” and hold their corporate makers accountable, is a sober and ominous docudrama.

On its surface, it’s an unspectacular one. Its lead character, a corporate defense attorney played by Mark Ruffalo, is no Erin Brockovich. The movie, itself, is grey and murky like the toxic West Virginia waters that provide the film’s first gloomy sense of trouble.

But just the same, Dark Waters will in its modest, steadfast way make your blood boil. And that will do.

Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) is a West Virginia native and Cincinnati attorney for a large law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, with a specialty in defending chemical companies.

Just after he’s made a partner, a West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) turns up in his office barking about his dead cattle and the DuPont plant next door. He dumps a box of VHS tapes at Bilott’s feet.

It’s only the mention of Bilott’s grandmother that gives him pause. Bilott’s colleague Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) overhears the encounter but assures Bilott discretion.

“You can be from West Virginia, Rob. I won’t tell anyone.”

Mark Ruffalo in a scene from ‘Dark Waters’. PHOTOS: AP
Anne Hathaway in a scene from ‘Dark Waters’

Bilott is accustomed to representing the corporate side of such disputes, but he’s moved by Tennant’s case. He has warm memories of visiting the farms in the area as a child and milking cows. And Tennant, gruff and furious, is hard to ignore. Nearly all his 200 cows have suffered enlarged organs and other deformities. A field of his is littered with graves like a battlefield. A nearby creeks runs from a DuPont landfill.

Bilott takes the case over the concerns of his colleagues. Terp tells him to “surgical”: get in, get out. The firm would prefer to have DuPont as a client, not a foe.

Bilott is himself friendly with DuPont lawyers, too. At first, he’s just trying to do a favour for a family friend.

But the scope of the case grows exponentially. Bilott, whose story was chronicled in an engrossing and detailed 2016 New York Times story by Nathaniel Rich, goes from a 1999 lawsuit on behalf of Tennant to a 2001 class action involving several West Virginia communities. Through methodical research and investigation, he traces the pollution affecting Tennant’s fame to DuPont’s use of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The substance, which DuPont began using in 1951 by purchasing it from 3M, is used in Teflon for things like non-stick frying pans and for fire-fighting foam.

It was created during the Manhattan Project but by now, it’s in all of us. Virtually every human and animal has traces of it in their system, whether it came through tap water or an umbilical cord.

It’s called a “forever chemical” because it never breaks down, and can build up in the blood and organs. DuPont dumped thousands of pounds of PFOA in the Ohio River.

Other companies, along with the Defense Department, have contributed to their spread. But DuPont was at the vanguard of their usage (with a reported annual profit of USD1 billion for PFOA-related products) and had been studying its worrisome effects on its own workers for decades — long before the Environmental Protection Agency knew of its risks.

Dark Waters, made relatively quickly by Hollywood standards, is the backstory on a legal drama that’s still unfolding, with ongoing debate in Congress and at the EPA on setting a national drinking-water limit. Critics, including the makers of Dark Waters, believe it’s taking much too long.

It’s perhaps a familiar script: good cause, inspiration movie. Dark Waters distinguishes itself, however, in intricately following the story of a toxic substance, from a West Virginia backwater to ubiquity. It’s not the kind of film typical of Haynes, whose artful dramas (Carol, Far From Heaven) usually dig less into headlines than the fluidity of identity and the tragedies of societal convention.

But those qualities are also what make Haynes a natural fit for Dark Waters.

Here, he has sucked much of the Hollywood out of the social-justice drama, while leaving certain touchstones.

Supporting players like Anne Hathaway (as Sarah Bilott, Rob’s wife) and Robbins get the requisite moments befitting an “important” movie. Ruffalo, too, is already clearly adept at portraying the growth of obsession (Spotlight, Zodiac). He has even once before been part of a film critical of DuPont, albeit less directly. In Bennett Miller’s 2014 real-life crime drama, Foxcatcher, Ruffalo played the man, Dave Schultz, killed by a Du Pont heir, John du Pont.

Where Haynes excels is in teasing out the personal and professional connections that mingle throughout. When Bilott grows aggressive in the investigation into DuPont, he’s breaking with decorum. He’s part of the old-boy network that works to protect companies like DuPont.

In Dark Waters, arguments happen at fancy attorney banquets, and boardroom decisions alter innocent human lives.

It can seem like there are too many corporate exposes. While they could use some new angles and perhaps fewer lawyer protagonists, I suspect that’s not the problem.

Dark Waters plays like a Chernobyl for America. Unfortunately, we probably need a lot more of these.

ON PLAYING THE LAWYER WHO TOOK ON DUPONT

Mark Ruffalo learned about corporate attorney Rob Bilott, who for 20 years battled DuPont to expose the harmful effects of the chemical PFOA, along with most of the country: In 2016 through an article in The New York Times Magazine.

A cold call from a West Virginia farmer in 1998 who believed his creek was being contaminated and his animals poisoned by DuPont runoffs began the long investigation that ended in 2017 when DuPont and Chemours Co agreed to pay more than USD600 million in a class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands. Ruffalo was captivated and immediately set out to acquire the rights to make Nathaniel Rich’s The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare into a legal thriller in which he’d play Bilott.

“It’s a horror story that has to be told,” Ruffalo said. “It’s a story for our time.”

The result, Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes and co-starring an impressive ensemble including Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, William Jackson Harper and Bill Pullman. Bilott also authored a book about the ordeal, Exposure, which hit shelves in October.

DuPont said in a statement that it believes the film “misrepresents things that happened years ago, including our history, our values and science”. The company also said it supports regulating the chemicals spotlighted in Dark Waters.

Ruffalo spoke to The Associated Press about the film. Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: WAS IT DIFFICULT TO GET THE RIGHTS?

RUFFALO: I was in the process of acquiring the rights after reading (the article) and I got a call from my friends at Participant Media who said, “Hey I think we’re actually bidding against each other for this story. We love it. Would you like to join forces with us?” I’d done Spotlight with them and I was like, “I would like that.” And then we started to develop it. This thing happened in record time. It (usually) takes five-seven years to get a movie made.

AP: WHY DID YOU THINK OF TODD HAYNES TO DIRECT?

RUFFALO: We’d been bumping into each other for years and I’d been such a big fan of his. I thought he would do something really beautiful with this. It needs that kind of spaciousness and depth to really make it work because there’s so much legalese and data that unless we’re attached to this character and really understand him, no one will stay with this story. (Haynes) would figure out a way to bridge 20 years in a movie elegantly and he would make the most gorgeous version of this movie.

AP: WHEN DID YOU MEET BILLOT AND START TO DEVELOP A RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM?

RUFFALO: Very early on. While we were in talks of acquiring the story, I wanted to talk to him about it. I was on the phone with him for quite some time laying out my vision for it. But I wanted to know more. I felt like the whole story wasn’t really in that New York Times article. Especially concerning his relationship to (his law firm) Taft and what that must have been like and how difficult that must have been. The article really doesn’t get into that.

AP: WAS THERE ANYTHING THAT SURPRISED YOU ABOUT HIM?

RUFFALO: He’s passionate (but) he’s not emotional. He’s the opposite of what, as an actor, you’d want him to be. He’s deeply righteous but he’s not political. He doesn’t have an axe to grind. He’s a corporate defense attorney! He’s the guy who would normally defend these companies. That was so remarkable to me. That’s what made the story. That’s what made me thought this could be a movie.

AP: WHEN YOU READ THAT INITIAL STORY, DID YOU HAVE A MOMENT LIKE ROB DOES WHERE YOU’RE THROWING OUT ALL THE TEFLON PRODUCTS?

RUFFALO: Yes. I (changed) everything. I have a water filter on the house. I’ve stopped buying even my favourite progressive sports brands that use PFOA in their waterproofing.

AP: WHAT ARE YOU HOPING AUDIENCES TAKE FROM THIS?

RUFFALO: Just having the knowledge. Knowledge is power. Before you didn’t know so you couldn’t even make a choice. We were living with this stuff. It was all around us and we had no idea so we couldn’t even decide whether it was something we wanted in our life or not. There’s power in that, just being able to say, “Hey I don’t want this in my life. This causes six diseases so I’m not going to cook on this anymore, I’m not going to buy these products anymore. I’m going to find the alternative.”

It’s like the priest scandal in Spotlight. What really made the change in the world was what people learned from what that they didn’t know about before, told in a human story that they could relate to in their hearts and minds.