Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters, caringly directed by Todd Haynes and starring Mark Ruffalo, is the true story of one brave man’s exposure of the cover-up of a far-reaching environmental catastrophe.

Local (and National) Hero

by Alexa Dalby

Dark Waters

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Dark Waters is the heartfelt, meticulous unravelling of a chemical pollution scandal that existed over decades, a trued story based on an article in the New York Times by Nathaniel Rich.

Director Todd Haynes already has prescient environmental-awareness form with his 1995 Safe. Mark Ruffalo, an environmental activist who executive produced, plays corporate defence lawyer Rob Bilott. An environmental specialist more used to defending big companies, he’s approached for help by rough-hewn, rural Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) a cattle farmer friend of his grandmother in Parkersburg, West Virginia, whose land and animals are being poisoned by the adjacent DuPont (the major local employer, on which the town depends) landfill discharging chemicals into their drinking water.

Though he’s reluctant at first to get involved, his conscience pricks him when he sees at first hand the devastation that being denied by the big company. He’s able to use his experience on ‘the other side’ to fight against DuPont, forensically going through mountains of documents to uncover a new chemical called FPOA, which DuPont first acquired in 1951, and the persistent illegal, life-threatening dumping of toxins and hazardous wastes that DuPont knowingly did. What he then discovered was even worse and far more widespread – the water supply to the local population of neighbouring towns had also been contaminated and over time was causing all kinds of cancers, birth defects and diseases.

It’s a horrific story of the exposure of uncaring, destructive corporate greed that needs no embellishment and Ruffalo plays a low-key, doggedly driven man who almost single-handly pursues the perpetrators. He quietly and determinedly follows his conscience to the detriment of his corporate career and at the risk to his marriage (a minor role for wife Anne Hathaway). Tim Robbins also stars as Bilott’s law-firm boss.

He started legal action against DuPont in 1999. It escalated from a single complaint to something that affected the general public and became a class action. It took years until quite recently, when this story could be told, to reach a settlement for the claimants but people in the affected areas will need to be monitored for effects of their chemical exposure for many years to come.

But most chillingly, it transpires that the most pervasive poisonous substance is everyday Teflon, which DuPont developed. It’s a ‘forever chemical’ that once artificially created lives forever inside its recipients and is probably present in the blood of everyone who has ever used an item that contains it.

The film can be heavy going at times, it has a lot of rather nerdy detailed information to impart, but it’s clearly told and never less than fascinating. And, of course, it’s an incredibly important subject that ultimately affects all of us.

Dark Waters is released on 28 February 2020 in the UK.

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