Going into Dark Waters, when people asked about it I was telling them that it was probably going to be depressing. I was not wrong. However, my head and my heart say two different things about it. A film about courtroom drama and legal proceedings can be thrilling. A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill come to mind. This was not one of those movies.
Dark Waters is the real life story of DuPont Chemical Company’s pollution of, seemingly, not just Parkersburg, West Virginia, but I guess the entire world. You see there is this thing called Teflon, and it is not just in bullet proof vests or non-stick frying pans (and this last one was particularly worrisome to me). DuPont was putting it in cigarettes, barrels, and the water around its Mountain State plant. I mean, how much did you need to test the indestructibility of your wonder product? Apparently a lot, if you are DuPont.
Enter Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate lawyer for the prestigious Cincinnati based firm of Taft, Stettinius, and Hollister. Why would he be involved in any kind of case going on in West Virginia? Well, his grandmother (uncredited, for some reason) lived in Parkersburg and had an acquaintance with Wilbur Tennant, the farmer who first began bringing complaints against the economic juggernaut that is DuPont. From there, Dark Waters methodically shows the levels to which both Bilott and his opponents would go to in pursuing their causes.
As mentioned above, Dark Waters does not feature a ton of expertly delivered legal arguments on either side of the issue. Instead, if you love research, then this is the movie for you. It went to its most extreme when DuPont decided to unload a warehouse of documents on Bilott in the hopes of burying him under a mountain of paper from which they hoped he would never emerge. It was very clear that there were layers upon layers of corruption to be plumbed by Bilott, but it unfolds at a snail’s pace. At one point, there are characters in the film actually asking what is going on. I was with them. At the same time, I glanced at my watch and was surprised to find only two hours had passed. I was afraid I had missed the New Year.
A movie like Dark Waters usually tests my patience, but I liked it nonetheless. The answer as to why that would be the case is pretty simple if you have followed my blog: the Bilott family are Catholic. Now, there are many in this country and around the world who are Catholic in name only. As such, I was delighted to see them saying the meal prayer at dinner and going to Mass. In a deeper sense, it should be noted that the Church, more often than not, has been on the forefront of social justice issues. Bilott is almost a crusader given how obsessed he becomes in prosecuting this case. If there is ever an example of a needy community it is West Virginia, and while Bilott was not acting as a representative of the Church, I would argue that he was acting out a corporal work of mercy. He continues to do so despite risks to his health and finances. May God bless him and his family.
I was also slightly worried that Dark Waters was going to be a referendum on corporate greed. While it was, to a certain degree, there was a great line in it about how DuPont does not represent the way American business is done. When a corporation steps over the line of acceptable practice, they should be prosecuted. That is what is happening in this film, it just takes a long time for justice to be done, literally and figuratively.