Dark Waters – in a nutshell, one man against the mighty Du Pont chemical empire – is the latest from another, sort-of empire.
Participant Films have been responsible for more well-intentioned movies – movies that aim to spur social change, as they say – than any other production firm in recent history.
Participant is the baby of former EBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, and the company’s track-record is remarkable – over 100 films, including The Post, Spotlight, Good Night and Good Luck, Niki Caro’s North Country and Oscar winners Roma and Green Book.
Dark Waters is straight out of the Participant playbook. It’s a story that ought to be told, it undeniably tells truth to power, it fearlessly names and shames the bad guys, it’s extremely well researched. And above all it knows how to tell a story.
Imagine the unlikely cross between Ken Loach and Steven Spielberg, and that’s pretty much what you get here.
The star, co-producer and, I gather, prime mover of Dark Waters is Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo harnesses his dogged decency here – a sort of latter-day Henry Fonda or James Stewart – to play Rob Bilott, a hard-working Cincinatti lawyer, originally from dirt-poor West Virginia.
One day, Bilott gets a visit from an acquaintance of his grandma – a farmer with a problem.
Rob feels bullied into at least having a look. He drives down to the farm and discovers there seems to be poison in the soil. For some reason, many of the cattle are developing bad – often fatal – diseases.
So he agrees to help out. I mean, how much of his time can a little case like this take up?
And at this moment we start to get an inkling of why Participant Films are rather good at what they do. Not only do they hire a smart director – Todd Haynes, in this case – but they let him cast well too. Tim Robbins, Anne Hathaway, Bill Pullman… these people are no slouches.
Needless to say, this little family legal case turns out to be bigger than anticipated.
Because it’s not just the cattle who are being damaged by the water. And it’s not just a local creek that seems to have unhealthy substances floating on the surface.
That water is going everywhere in West Virginia. And all roads appear to lead to one of the biggest companies in the nation – Du Pont Chemicals. That can’t be right.
It’s undeniably true, but it certainly isn’t right, and Bilott finds himself tackling a company that hitherto he’d had nothing but good relations with.
The question is, can he bring his law firm with him as he takes on the almost limitless resources of Du Pont. Rob Bilott often finds himself in direct conflict with the rest of the partners.
Unlike some of these “torn from the headlines” based-on-truth stories, the film doesn’t shape the facts to fit someone’s idea of what a good movie story is.
Bilott’s real-life struggle with Du Pont is not an easy story to tell. For a start, it went on for years, and all the indications were that the chemical giant – and indeed any ridiculously big American company – was just too big.
Too big to fail, too big to be found out, certainly too big to be sent to jail.
And rather than cutting corners, director Todd Haynes and his writers went the other way. The characters are all drawn deeper – deeper than they need to be sometimes – allowing everyone his or her time to shine.
It’s Ruffalo’s film, of course, but the acting across the board is exemplary.
And what makes Dark Waters stronger is that the attack on Du Pont, and indeed on all these multi-billionaires who get away with so much because they can, comes from one of their own.
Just as Bilott was originally a corporate lawyer, so Participant Films’ Skoll was a hugely successful businessman.
Sometimes, says Dark Waters, you can’t wait around for the Government to fix things. I mean, look at them. That may never happen.
Sometimes you’ve got to do it yourself, whether it’s relentlessly taking Du Pont to court, or making the best movie you can on the subject.