Dark Waters – a corporate cover-up

Dark Waters directed by Todd Haynes, 2020  reviewed by Dave Kellaway

This film tells the true story of a corporate lawyer, Ron Bobitt, who started out defending big chemical companies like Dupont. But as a result of a family connection he ends up taking on the case of a dairy farmer, Wilbur Tennant, whose cows are being poisoned by the self same Dupont. The insider becomes a redoubtable challenger to corporate power in a battle which lasts nearly fifteen years.

It is a legal procedural drama with a documentary feel to it. Mark Ruffalo is the lead  – and has also invested in the movie as executive producer. He is well known as a liberal anti-Trump defender. The film sits within the tradition of films like Erin Brokovich which dealt with a similar topic and the Insider which dealt with legal action against the tobacco industry. However, it tempers the individual lawyer against the system cliché with a harder, more detailed
condemnation of corporate America and the extent of government collusion

How does the film show the brutality of corporate power?

The primary crime is the poisoning of animals, the land and people through the dumping of toxic substances. The farmer arrives in the lawyer’s downtown offices with disturbing videos showing the horrific effects of the chemicals on the cows. We see local people with darkened teeth, the illnesses caused by the firm testing its substances on its workers and finally the large number of early deaths caused by cancer.

Just as bad is the cover up: the sheer amount of money and power used to prevent the public knowing.  Dupont would not pay compensation for the deadly pollution that its internal documents proved it knew were highly toxic until absolutely forced to and then, after much delay, finally paying the least it could get away with.

At the beginning, the Dupont lawyers try and organise a gentleman’s agreement with Bobitt, thinking his insider role made this an easy play. They set up a company inquiry that alleges that the farmer himself was responsible through poor husbandry. When this does not work they eventually agree to a personal settlement with Tennant that would include a non-disclosure agreement. It is the refusal of an ordinary farmer to accept this, his concern for the truth rather than an easy life that forces the lawyer to keep the case going.

At this point Dupont uses the ‘haystack’ tactic as another manoeuvre to delay things. in response to a request for disclosure of all documents relating to the waste dump, they hand over enough paperwork to completely fill a entire room at Bilott’s offices.  Their arrogance underestimates the lawyer’s resilience since he works all hours and finally uncovers the existence of a chemical compound used in the production of Teflon that contains fluoride in a toxic mix which cannot be destroyed. It is difficult however to believe that Bobitt did this all on his own without support from anyone else on his team. Haynes sticks to the Hollywood playbook on this.

In their continuing delaying tactics Dupont then agrees to work with an enquiry that investigates the safe levels of this chemical in water. Through their pressure, the state agrees a level that is actually higher than what was considered safe in Dupont’s own internal documents. Both local government and the EPA were easily manipulated by corporate power  Bobbit is forced to engage in a full on class action lawsuit against Dupont to get anwhere.

In the meantime Dupont uses its influence in the company town to isolate the farmer and others willing to join the lawsuit. A great travelling shot shows the sheer reach Dupont has:  you see signs showing how they sponsored the high school, its football teams and other local infrastructure. Workers are bought off with gifts and wages above the local rate. We see how the Tennants are shunned in church and in restaurants for taking on the company.  A house is burnt out by pro-Dupont people.

Finally a deal is struck as Dupont knows it cannot hold out forever. However the key question of ongoing medical monitoring and subsequent damages is dependent on a scientific commission that takes a number of years to finally come down against Dupont. But the company reneges on the agreement and will only settle the cases one by one in order to buying time. Bobbitt sticks to the job and starts winning the cases and so in the end they do settle. Nevertheless, as notes on the screen show, the final payout is much, much less than the huge profits the company made through its Teflon products.

Of course Dupont is only following other big corporations who have used the same game plan. Play for time, use your political influence and economic power to buy people off or intimidate them all to defend your profits.

The film doesn’t  include many voices of working people. The farmer has a strong role but there is much less involvement of workers in the process. Even the extraordinary mobilisation of tens of thousands of people to have blood tests was in the film mostly down to Bobitt’s idea of giving each person a $400 fee. How far this passivity existed in reality is difficult to say. Anne Hathaway’s role as the long suffering but ultimately supportive wife is a also rather unsatisfactory.

 To some degree the very weakness of trade unions and progressive political movements in taking up such issues in the USA means the courts are a path to at least get some pay out, even if the structural brutality is not fixed.  It is unsurprising that there are more Hollywood and independent movies of progressive legal battles than about mass struggles.

For a mainstream Hollywood film, Dark Waters captures the politics quite well. In a crucial scene when the law firm is deciding whether to risk taking on Dupont the chairperson comes down in support of Bobitt on the basis that capitalist companies can only be credible and have support if they are seen to clean up their act. But later on, as Dupont tries to sabotage the agreement, Bobitt echoes what the dairy farmer
told him right from the start.

‘The system is rigged. The want us to believe that it’ll protect us, but that’s a lie. We protect us. We do. Nobody else. Not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us.’

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