Dark Waters

 

            Actually, the original working title of this film was more descriptive:  The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare.

            Robert Bilott was an obscure corporate lawyer who graduated from non-prestigious schools, but through hard work and perseverance he'd just been made partner in a firm that defended corporations from civil litigation.  He and his pregnant wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) were delighted with the promotion, even as she's decided to quit her law practice in order to stay home and raise the children (they would have three sons).  It looks like Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is headed for a solid, if unspectacular, career.  But then he takes on the little case that would define his personal legacy.

            Robert was from Parkersburg, West Virginia, where his grandmother still lived.  Robert was in the middle of a meeting (which he typically was in his practice) when an old West Virginia farmer bursts into the office, insisting on talking personally to Robert.  Because the farmer is a neighbor of Robert's grandmother.  Well, it turned out the old farmer and Robert's grandmother barely knew each other.  But it was enough of a personal connection to get the old farmer into the door, and that's all he needed.

            It seems the old farmer's cows were all dying.  190 of them.  He swears it's from the nearby creek, where the adjacent DuPont plant has been dumping its chemical waste.  Not only are the cows getting sick, but so are the dogs, and other livestock, and then, after a while, so are the farmers and their families.  Robert Bilott is intrigued by this calamity so close to home, so he asks the managing partner if he can take the case, assuring him that it will be quick and easy.  Wrong.

            Bilott logically attempts to work with his business contacts first, and in the beginning his corporate counterparts at DuPont were reasonably forthcoming.  Until they weren't.  But the more they resisted his request for information, the more Bilott rolled up his sleeves and dug in for the long haul.  And it's a good thing, because they tried lots of stall tactics, including sending him literally truckloads of paperwork to plow through.

            But Bilott was like a hound dog on a scent.  He wasn't going to quit pursuing this, even though his dutiful wife would occasionally lecture him about neglecting his family.  Even his managing partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), felt that the case was taking way too much time and resources, until Bilott impressed upon him how long this fraud had been going on (since the 1950's) and how many people it potentially affected (virtually everyone, because we all used teflon pots and pans in our kitchens).  There was something about the chemical process utilized to manufacture the teflon that created a compound that was not only fatal in very small doses, it was also virtually indestructible.

            DuPont, of course, fought at every turn, and had the money and the corporate strength to overwhelm almost any opposition, including from the government.  But after many years of dogged perseverance, Robert Bilott finally wins a class action lawsuit.  Even though the compensation awarded amounted to only a fraction of the profits made from the product, Bilott at least brought public awareness. Sometimes the cause is worth the fight, even for a small victory.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association