3/10 Dark Waters is by no means a bad movie, but it isn’t good, and it seems to know and be weirdly self-conscious about that.
Dark Waters, based on the New York Times Magazine Article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich, tells the true story of lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo, who also produces), a Cincinnati lawyer who spent 20 years litigating and shining a light on the hazardous dumping of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) by DuPont Industries. PFOA is used in the production of Teflon, the space-age non-stick cooking surface that was one of DuPont’s most popular products. Through litigation, Bilott produced a study linking PFOA exposure to six chronic health conditions, including kidney and testicular cancer, and produced documents proving DuPont had discovered these correlations in its own employees decades ago, but had declined to change their business practices because Teflon was making them so much money.
Most every year, there’s a batch of movies that represent a delayed reaction to something that was popular a few years ago. Dark Waters is part of a large-scale reaction to Spotlight’s surprise Best Picture win, a glut of movies focusing on weirdly forgotten scandals in the early ‘00s. Its most prominent cohorts are Official Secrets and The Report, both of which focus on lies undergirding the War on Terror in the early century.
Begging comparisons to Spotlight, one of the best movies ever made about the discovery of a scandal, all the ways Dark Waters falls short become immediately obvious. Spotlight does a marvelous job of dramatizing the tedium of the reporting work and emphasizing the quiet but extreme societal conflict of going after the Catholic Church in Boston.
Dark Waters flails and fails to find ways to make its story cinematic. There are some good scenes, of course – Bilott’s direct confrontations with DuPont head Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) and everything with class action lawyer Harry Deitzler (Bill Pullman) spring to mind, as does the reveal of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection announcing safe levels of PFOA at 150 parts per billion when toxicologists agreed the threshold was 0.2 ppb, which drew audible gasps from the entire theater – but its weak spots stick out.
Where movies like Spotlight and All the President’s Men feast on the high-tension moments of their investigations, Dark Waters makes itself feel like there aren’t any. There’s too much distance between what high-tension scenes there are, but the bigger problem is those scenes don’t push Bilott’s investigation forward. Eventually, Bilott’s subpoena’s get him a windfall of 110,000 pages of documents, and after a few minutes of negative space, he suddenly knows everything there is to know about PFOAs and exposits it to his wife and bosses. As viewers, we don’t feel the process the same way we do in better movies.
You can kind of tell the filmmakers knew it was getting boring with the insertion of scenes where Bilott and his initial client, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), fear violence that never comes. The scene of Bilott worrying that he’s had a bomb planted on his car is the climax of Dark Waters’ trailer, but DuPont hasn’t killed anyone at this point in the movie, so this feels like a bluff on the movie’s part to get me interested. The trailer also makes it seem like Bilott works for DuPont directly and turned in formant, which was never true in any way shape or form. This injection of violence also goes into Tennant’s cows themselves – in the movie, the PFOA makes them go feral and attack Bilott at one point, when in reality it just made them shrivel up and die.
Bilott also receives pushback from his partners at Taft Stettinius & Hollister as if they won’t all get insanely rich from the slam-dunk class-action suit he’s proposing.
Ending details and how PFOA may be affecting you below.
Dark Waters ends abruptly on Bilott’s hard-won $671 million settlement from DuPont, which he finally wrestled out of the company in 2017 on behalf of 3,535 West Virginia plaintiffs. It then ominously warns viewers that PFOA and other “forever chemicals” have found their way into 98% of the human population, a shocking statistic that seems to undermine the urgency of what we’ve just seen. Further research indicates that 98% is an accurate number, but even for a chemical that can be dangerous in such minute quantities, the vast majority of us don’t have enough inside us to cause harm.
It turns out you need to have, I don’t know, an industrial chemical company dumping this shit into your water supply to see real effects from it.
Please remember to avoid Teflon products – just butter your pans, people! – and if you do have them, make sure you don’t heat them above 500 degrees Fahrenheit and you should be fine.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.