THIS JUST IN: 99% of us have Teflon, that easy to clean, non-stick, quasi magical substance of so many sauce pans. It’s all inside us. Oh, by the way, Teflon is a carcinogenic. Teflon is made of a chemical compound known as PFOA or C8. It has been conclusively proven as a cause of multiple cancers, as well as kidney, liver and thyroid diseases. Not only will it kill you, it can lead to horrible newborn deformities.
And this miracle of science was all brought to you by Dupont. That uber powerful, uber profitable company knew about this decades ago. Their own people were dying. Other companies who had done the research (The Dow corporation) had warned them of the problem. And their senior executives had recognized the danger. What did they do about it? Fuck all. They kept on manufacturing their miracle frying pans. They dumped their killer chemicals into nearby rivers. They put waste material into drums and buried them, where they stayed buried…until the drums began to leach into the water supplies. And children’s teeth began to fall out; and their kidneys began to fail; and the cattle on their ranches began to die in spasms of pain.
Dark Waters is the tremendous, angry movie that lays bare the moral vacuum at the heart of the company (A stand in for so many others, from the cigarette companies to big oil to those multiple others that hide behind their corporate lawyers, their lobbyists, their PR spinners, their bought politicians). It follows the personal crusade of Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) as he grows more involved, more alarmed and more obsessed by the rancid criminal rot at the heart of the corporation.
Rob’s a young, nerdy, rising corporate defence attorney at a major legal corporation. It was his grandmother who recommended him to Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp: Joker) one of her neighbours. Wilbur’s an old farmer whose land abuts that of a Dupont dumping ground and whose herd is being poisoned.
In a sense the plight of the farmer and his ailing community poisons Rob’s own conscience. He grows increasingly obsessed and blindly committed to a seemingly quixotic crusade (of taking on the power and money of corporate America). It is a poisonous obsession that impoverishes him, destabilizes his marriage and ruins his health. And all the while the company layers legal stonewalling, with bribery and payoffs and physical attacks on his clients, to intimidate him and close him down.
Dark Waters suggests we’re all shaped by two fundamentally different kinds of forces. On the one hand there’s the force of the immense strength of the big corporation, fuelled by the shared and amoral conviction that making money is its own justification. And there’s a deeper strength: that of the individual, unbowed in the face of enormous odds and armed with an unbeatable moral force. This is more than Dupont v Rob the crusading attorney. It’s the clash of the faceless corporation v the faces of the very people it presumes to serve. Profit v people.
The idea that’s twice repeated in the story and initially voiced by the ailing farmer and then reiterated by Rob is a simple one. He says, “The system is rigged. They want us to believe that it’ll protect us. But that’s a lie. We protect us. We do. Nobody else. Not the companies. Not the scientists. Not the government. Us”
And you wonder why the Americans have such a deep-seated need to arm themselves against the state?
As he has done in all his movies, director Todd Haynes (Carol, Mildred Pierce, Far From Heaven) engages you with the compellingly credible humanity of his protagonists to illuminate and involve you with the issues he’s seeking to investigate; in this case, that of corporate malfeasance. He structures his story via a series of discoveries as seen through the naive eyes of his protagonist, Rob, who, like his audience, aren’t familiar with the nuances of chemistry. With Rob, we learn of and discover what PFOA is; we’re taught to understand how carbon molecules bond; how they repel water; and how that destroys us. We’re with Rob as he wades through a smokescreen of documents to unearth proof upon proof of the company’s prior knowledge of harm. Haynes doesn’t so much tell us a story as involve us as his ally; his co-conspirators.
As Rob, the always dependable Mark Ruffalo – who is on screen for almost the entire movie which he co-produced – is tremendous. He manages to skilfully convey the mania of being myopically obsessed and sleeplessly driven without ever losing his audience by seeming crazed. Ruffalo put on the pounds for the role to become an awkward, schlubby everyman. (And almost as it to put behind him his Hulk alter-ego by offering us a new-look kind of superhero).
As his long-suffering, increasingly fraught wife, Anne Hathaway is – after the disasters of the unwatchable The Last Thing He Wanted, Oceans Eight and Serenity- surprisingly convincing. She’s a low-keyed but powerful presence; a woman torn between her loyalty and love and the existential terror of facing the abyss at the heart her errant husband’s impossible mission.
This is a movie that leaves you “mad as hell” (And certainly for me personally as I was involved in the con of re-crafting the company’s image away from its -compromised- promise of “better living through chemistry” to the ennobling idea of “miracles of science”. We shifted the attention away from Teflon to Lycra. Fool me once…)
So to the good news: As a result of the heroism of Rob Bilott, the carcinogenic substance PFOA has been removed from all Teflon coatings at the mandate of the US EPA (environmental protection agency)
So now we’re all safe.
And you believe that, do you?
DARK WATERS. Dir: Todd Haynes. Writers: Matthew Carnahan (21 Bridges) and Mario Correa, based on Nathaniel Rich’s New Your Times article. With: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp, Victor Garber. Cinematographer: Edward Lachman (Carol)