Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Was talked up on several film podcasts I listen to.
Something sinister is happening in small town West Virginia. Animals are dying; their bodies covered in tumors, their internal organs swollen, their teeth black. Then people start getting sick too; cancer and other undiagnosable illnesses. Du Pont, the chemical giant that is the region’s largest employer, shrugs its shoulders. These strange occurrences definitely have nothing to do with the toxic waste dump they maintain.
This rivetting, alarming, based on fact account is the story of Rob Bilott: a corporate lawyer who gets dragged into the case by a farmer who is friends with his grandma. Sceptical at first, as he digs he discovers a coverup of breathtaking scope.
Du Pont manufactures C8, also known as PFOA, a nearly industructable compound that is used in an enormous variety of products; primarily teflon cookware, and waterproof clothing. Although they had known C8 was toxic if ingested since the 1960s, Du Pont not only buried this information, but buried thousands of pounds of it in landfill, poisoning the water supplies of several communities. From there, it spread to the food chain and the wider ecosystem; one scientist quoted in the film estimates that 99% of living organisms on earth now has traces of C8 in their system.
This is another movie depicting how unregulated American industry has become. The EPA, represented in the film by a series of ever smiling and ineffectual bureaucrats, has effectively given up; underfunded and undermined by politicians, and without the resources to enforce the law. This is then left to a crusading idealist, played with sincere intensity by the great Mark Ruffalo (who also produced). And after his star turn in ‘Spotlight’, the actor has effectively created his own sub genre: Ruffalo Fights Injustice. And I am all for it. Bill Camp is also tops, as the gruff farmer who raises the alarm.
While arthouse director Todd Haynes may seem like an odd choice for a classic, old school film like this, there is an interesting connection to his own filmography. His 1995 film ‘Safe’ showcases Julianne Moore as a neurotic young woman, convinced she is being poisoned by the everyday things in her environment. And what do you know, she was right!
Haynes has a sure grasp of the material, and the film moves briskly through what could be some complex and dry background info on chemical chains and flurocarbons. The sequence where Ruffalo reveals everything he has uncovered to his wife, and shows us the big picture, is electric, and emotional. All of these innocent animals and people, just trying to their lives, maliciously harmed by a large company to turn a profit.
The real tragedy, highlighted by the movie, is that this is likely the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of unregulated chemicals at large in America, and so everywhere, any one of which could be doing exactly what this one did for fifty years. There is no system in place to ensure this is not happening; the system that is there is actually set up to ensure it is almost impossible to find out what large, well resourced industries are up to.
Actually: pretty shocking. Based on an article in the New York Times, ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare’, which is a recommended read.