Film Review: ‘Dark Waters’: Blowing the Whistle on DuPont and Teflon’s Toxic Chemicals

Updated: 2019-12-10 10:30:21

PG-13 | | Biography, Drama, History | 6 December 2019 (USA)

Were you aware that your body—and the body of almost every living creature on the planet—has been infected by the toxic chemical components in Teflon? The gray, nonstick plastic stuff? And that it’s been undeniably isolated as the cause of six different kinds of fatal illnesses?

The Epoch Times is all about whistle-blowing: If I put an amplifier next to the computer of any journalist in our newsroom, you’d hear “fweeeeeeeet!!!”

  Normally we blow the whistle on the Chinese Communist Party, but I’m very happy to be reviewing “Dark Waters,” the title of which refers to poisonous chemical runoff and dumping in the waters of West Virginia, and the story of which is based on an article by The New York Times.

Did you also know that Telflon’s manufacturer, the DuPont chemical giant, knew all about this fact and hid the truth? Sound familiar? Like “Erin Brockovich,” “The Report,” “The China Syndrome,” and “Spotlight”? These are all movies based on true stories about whistle-blowers, that are not only entertainment—they’re one of the best forms of enlightening the general public to hazardous situations.

Longtime environmental activist and actor Mark Ruffalo read the New York Times Magazine article and pursued the rights to the film, eventually becoming a co-producer. Which makes him a major whistle-blower himself.

Hulk, Esquire

I would have happily paid to see Hulk hulk-smash the DuPont corporation, but Mark Ruffalo here sheds his Avenger character’s big green muscles and purple shorts to play Robert Bilott, a mild-mannered corporate lawyer turned environmental activist who entered into a decades-long legal jiu-jitsu match with DuPont, trying to get them to tap out and own up to their sneaky wrongdoing.

And tap DuPont he did, in regard to the lethal effects of the chemical Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). He furthermore got the iconic American company to pay restitution to many thousands of people in a class-action lawsuit.

Ironically, Bilott starts his career as a lawyer working for a Cincinnati-based law firm that specializes in defending chemical companies, which, naturally, includes DuPont.

four men in a legal meeting
Mark Ruffalo (C) as a lawyer in “Dark Waters.” (Focus Features)

We meet him just as he’s been made a partner, and, in a thunderbolt of destiny, his first big meeting is interrupted by one Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a cattle farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia. It’s a small-town, can-you-help-a-neighbor-out thing; Tennant knows Bilott’s grandma, and farms an area near where Bilott used to spend idyllic childhood summers.

farmer and lawyer in front of a truck
Bill Camp (L) as a farmer and Mark Ruffalo as a lawyer in “Dark Waters.” (Focus Features)

At first, Bilott wants no part of it, doesn’t want to make waves at his firm, but after taking a look at the box of VHS tapes Tennant brings him, which are like a cow-pocalypse of grisly footage of blackened teeth, giant tumors, bloated organs, and the terrifying tendencies of rabid-acting cows charging their owners—he’s given pause. In a flashback of seeing a neighborhood girl grinning happily at him with blackened teeth like a scene from a horror movie, he knows he must act.

Farmer Tennant, with the wisdom that comes from working in nature, knows DuPont is the culprit, pointing out to Bilott the ghostly, pale stones in his creek that have been bleached white by chemicals in the water. Who else would it be? DuPont owns the massive plant upstream from the creek.

In a scene reminiscent of one in the 2010 documentary about fracking, “Gasland” (which Mark Ruffalo was an advocate of), where a real-life farmer invites the journalist into his kitchen, strikes a match and ignites an explosive, three-foot flame from the water coming out of his tap, Bilott visits Tennant’s farm and sees another real-life horror story: a field dotted with 190 burial mounds of poisoned cattle. The farmer explains that his cows are like family to him.

This would be where the Hulk starts loosening his tie, breathing erratically, turning green, and growing large. Indeed, the Hulk’s very existence is a meditation on the effects of chemicals gone wrong.

two men near barn
Bill Camp (L) as a farmer and Mark Ruffalo as a lawyer in “Dark Waters.” (Focus Features)

Bilott is a quiet man of high moral stature. He’s not going to sit idly by. The cosmic law is that in order to gain, we must lose; the people employed by DuPont in this neck of the West Virginia woods are, naturally, not happy with Bilott’s attempt to liberate them from DuPont’s toxic reign/rain. His boss (Tim Robbins) is not particularly happy either.

man with white hair in suit
Tim Robbins plays the head of a major Cincinnati law firm in “Dark Waters.” (Focus Features)

Neither is his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), an attorney herself who, instead of the marital teamwork she was counting on, gets the short end of the stick, cleaning diapers while he takes years working his way through the oceanic stack of documented evidence (much like the sheer paper-tonnage dumped on the protagonist in “The Report”) with the same defensive objective—drown the legal offensive team with paperwork.

man and wife hug
Mark Ruffalo as lawyer Robert Bilott and his wife (Anne Hathaway) in “Dark Waters.” (Focus Features)

Slow But Intense

It’s not easy to make the slow accumulation of legal factoids, endless paperwork, circling of dates with pens, highlighting, and number-crunching maintain a high level of tension. But “Dark Waters” manages to do just that, to the point where there were three instances where the audience applauded loudly at the legal equivalent of Bilott getting DuPont in a rear naked choke.

lawyer with photo grilling defendant
Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) grilling a DuPont head-honcho in “Dark Waters.” (Focus Features)

Bill Pullman shines as a comically inclined Southern lawyer on Bilott’s trial team, who gets in a few verbal arm-bars and triangle chokes against DuPont’s legal team himself.

Toxic Slogans

The other reason the audience clapped at DuPont’s takedown is because we are informed that the highly toxic fluorocarbon PFOA is now everywhere; it’s labeled a “forever chemical,” and it’s contaminated the planet. The sheer, bold-faced lying inherent in DuPont’s classic slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry” reveals itself to be right up there with Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz concentration camp’s “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free).

Lawyer in court
Mark Ruffalo as an environmental crusader fighting the DuPont chemical corporation in “Dark Waters.” (Focus Features)

’Dark Waters’
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Bill Camp, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 6
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch
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