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Dark Waters: A Predictable but Powerful Story of a Rigged System

Focus Features

“The system is rigged. We protect us, not the government.” It could have been a battle cry in the Revolutionary War, or a protest sign at Occupy Wall Street. In Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes, it is Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) who expresses this sentiment with exasperation after yet another defeat at the hands of a powerful corporation bent on producing dangerous (and profitable) chemicals, no matter the human or environmental cost. Based on a true story, Dark Waters details Rob Bilott’s fight against DuPont, a chemical company that poisoned four West Virginia communities by carelessly dumping a chemical called PFOA -- used to manufacture Teflon -- into the surrounding environment.  DuPont pumped over 7,000 tons of sludge containing PFOA into open pits near those communities.  The chemicals eventually seeped into the ground and into the local water table.   Bilott first agrees to sue DuPont on behalf of a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) who lost 190 cattle to diseases caused by the infiltration of PFOA into the water supply.  DuPont refuses to cooperate or change course, even as Bilott uncovers piles of evidence demonstrating the company’s willful blindness to the dangers of its product.  The fight against DuPont later expands to include a class action of over 3,500 plaintiffs who suffer from everything ranging from testicular cancer to hypertension.  It is a battle of David vs. Goliath, in the vein of other environmental-crime movies like A Civil Action and Michael Clayton The film is well-paced, well-made, and effective, but the dialogue is simple and uninteresting. Dark Waters’ biggest shortcoming is Mrs. Bilott (Anne Hathaway), an unnecessarily shallow and underdeveloped character; despite the fact that she was once an accomplished lawyer in her own right, her role is limited to either (1) being pregnant or (2) having emotional breakdowns over her husband’s devotion to the cause and the repercussions for her family.  Mrs. Bilott feels more like a 70’s housewife than an independent woman with an identity of her own. Although Dark Waters is fairly predictable (even for those of us young enough to have missed the Teflon controversy), it tells the story in a way that evokes visceral disgust and horror.  You just can’t believe that anyone would knowingly endanger thousands of lives and livelihoods -- for over forty years -- for money.  Haynes forces you to sit with feelings of disappointment, anger, and disbelief. The power of Dark Waters is in recounting a real-life cautionary tale that may have otherwise been lost to the annals of history or swept under the rug.  It’s a welcome reminder that vigilance and perseverance can go a long way to exposing the truth, and that sometimes the best protection comes from ordinary citizens willing to risk everything to fight an unwinnable battle. 


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