What's Missing From Real-life Drama 'Dark Waters'? Real Rage

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Mark Ruffalo in a scene from “Dark Waters.”
Mark Ruffalo in a scene from “Dark Waters.” Credit: Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

“We want to believe corporate America. It’s too horrible to believe that every day we get up, we are at the mercy of a corporation who might lie to us, who might poison us, who might create a product that’s going to kill us – for profit.” Those are the words of trial lawyer Mike Papantonio in “The Devil We Know,” a brilliant documentary about DuPont and the 20-year legal saga involving workers and residents affected by a carcinogenic compound produced at the U.S. chemical giant’s plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

If you want other equally powerful speeches about corporate malfeasance, you should absolutely seek out that 2018 documentary by Stephanie Soechtig – which is, ironically, a more dramatic experience than Todd Haynes’ recreation of the same story in his new legal drama “Dark Waters.” 

Where “The Devil We Know” makes great use of ominous-sounding music and structures its story around a few of the tragic personal stories in this all-too-real-life tale, Haynes’ film is a more somber affair. That doesn’t mean “Dark Waters” isn’t worth watching: It is a very well-told, faithful recreation of the protracted series of events that occurred in West Virginia and Ohio between 1996 and 2017, when DuPont reluctantly faced a reckoning for the 50-odd years when it preferred to put profit over the health of its workforce and God knows how many people worldwide.  

The frustration is that the faithfulness of “Dark Waters” to the legal case comes at the expense of the arguably most important characters: the victims – in particular a young man from Parkersburg called Bucky Bailey. He was born with only one nostril and a deformed face (just like the fetuses of rats experimented on to ascertain the effects of the “miracle chemical” C8, aka PFOA); his story is movingly relayed in “The Devil We Know.”

There’s a great quote in The New York Times article upon which “Dark Waters” is based – Nathaniel Rich’s “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” published in January 2016 – in which a colleague says of that very attorney, “To say that Rob Bilott is understated is an understatement.” 

And that’s the challenge facing both the filmmaker and the audience here: Mark Ruffalo has to rein in his natural charisma to play such a quietly heroic figure. 

And Bilott is undoubtedly heroic: This unassuming legal crusader made personal sacrifices, both to his health and career, to pursue the case against DuPont. It began with a fateful encounter in 1996, when a West Virginia farmer (played by Bill Camp with an Appalachian accent thicker than a Trump son) contacted him, handing over a boxful of videos that detailed the horrors that befell his herd of cattle since DuPont started burying its industrial waste on adjacent land.  

It’s telling, though, that the film’s two most grandstanding moments come not from the ostensible protagonist but from those around him: Tim Robbins, as Bilott’s boss at the venerable Cincinnati law firm that has been hitherto more familiar with defending corporate clients than going after them; and Anne Hathaway as the dutiful wife who has abandoned her own legal career to raise the family’s three children, but finally cracks over her husband’s obsession with the case. (If only Hathaway’s agent could strike a deal in which she got paid by the teardrop, Annie would be the best paid actress in Hollywood.) 

There’s a real frisson when Robbins’ Tom Terp (yes, that was the character’s name in real life) thumps the table during a pivotal company meeting and tells his charges about proceeding with a lawsuit against DuPont: “American business is better than this, gentlemen” – and yes, he is addressing a roomful of men. “We are always arguing that companies are people. Well, these people have crossed the line. To hell with them!” 

Yet while I admire Haynes and his team for operating with restraint throughout – exemplified by the “corporate gray” hues that dominate every scene, literally dulling proceedings – there were many times when I wanted more cinematic fury. The events of recent decades have shown us that American business is not better than this, gentlemen and ladies, for which we should all be mad as hell.

That message is nicely conveyed at the start of the film when Bilott’s law firm is holding a meeting with clients comprising a who’s who of environmental monsters, including DuPont, Union Carbide and Exxon. It’s a nice dig at how the company previously made its money, but I wanted more anger directed at these corporations and the way the Environmental Protection Agency has been in bed with big business for so long. Still, at least we don’t need to worry about that anymore thanks to the current president’s amazing swamp-draining skills, right?

Anne Hathaway in a scene from "Dark Waters." Credit: Mary Cybulski,AP

The most obvious comparison to “Dark Waters” is Steven Zaillian’s “A Civil Action” from 1998. That film was also concerned with contamination of a local water supply by large corporations, and while it’s by no means a great film (after all, it did star John Travolta), it was also less afraid to embrace the tropes of the genre – most notably that if your film is a legal drama, you’d better set the most dramatic scenes in a courtroom, in front of an audience.

I watched “Dark Waters” and “The Devil We Know” back to back, and it was the latter that left the bigger impact. Sure, I will remember the odd moment in “Dark Waters,” especially the blackened teeth of young West Virginians due to the effect of DuPont putting so much fluoride in the river – and trust me, things have got to be really bad when a British viewer is appalled by the state of an American’s teeth. 

But it was moments from the documentary that had the most powerful effect: an expert referring to the chemical compound C8 as “the devil’s piss” because it is nigh-on impossible to destroy. And that compound, which was used to help create the nonstick Teflon surface found on kitchen utensils around the world, is now also found in a staggering 99 percent of all our bloodstreams. 

“Dark Waters” (shame about that generic title, too) would have been more rewarding if it had been less restrained – not something the director of “I’m Not There” and “Far From Heaven” is exactly noted for – and more enraged about the actions of corporate America. In short, I really wanted Haynes to tell DuPont, the EPA et al. where to stick it.