December 10, 2019 – I am up on the news, but I had no idea of the vast, scary scope of the facts on which this story is based. This movie not only clearly states those facts, but it puts them in a dramatic, human perspective. This movie is based on a New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare,” as well as other news sources and books.
Attorney Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo of the “Avengers” movies) a successful corporate attorney, has just been made a partner in the big law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister in Cincinnati, when a farmer comes to the office with a claim against chemical giant DuPont. If Bilott represents the farmer, Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp of “Joker”) it could jeopardize his future with the firm, which represents big corporate clients much like DuPont.
Bilott takes the case anyway, in part because his grandmother knows Tennant, and he used to play on a nearby farm as a child. He travels to meet Tennant at his farm in West Virginia and is shocked by what he finds there, sick and dying animals. In the nearby town, there are sick and dying people. He suspects the water in this area has been contaminated by chemicals leaching from a DuPont landfill. DuPont is also the largest employer in this area, so a lawsuit against DuPont causes locals to become angry with Bilott and Tennant.
Bilott's lawsuit against DuPont also is unpopular at his law office. His boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins of “Green Lantern”) cuts back on Bilott's pay as he spends more and more time on a lawsuit that doesn't appear to be winnable. The reduced pay for Bilott is resented by Bilott's wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway of “Ocean's Eight”). But Sarah also understands the importance of the lawsuit and stands by her husband.
During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, DuPont uses a tactic known as data dumping. In response to a request for documents, DuPont dumps a huge shipment of documents on Bilott's office, many of them unrelated to the case. The idea is to so overwhelm him that he will give up. That doesn't work. Bilott soldiers on.
Combing through the documents, he discovers that the landfill near Tennant's property contains massive amounts of an unregulated chemical that predates the existence of the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical, PFOA, belongs to a family of chemicals called perfluorinated alkylated substances, used in a wide variety of applications and products, including non-stick coatings like Teflon © . An estimated 98 percent of all people have PFOA, or related chemicals, in their bodies.
Here is the scary part, PFOA, and related chemicals, do not break down in the environment. Once ingested, they don't break down inside a person either. The chemicals also cause a number of diseases, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. These facts were not widely known prior to this lawsuit.
The strain on Bilott becomes unbearable as he continues on year after year in the lawsuit. The strain on his marriage is also significant, but he carries on, despite being hospitalized with a stress-related condition, and despite the reductions in his salary. At the hospital, his wife confronts his boss, Tom Terp. She asks him to stop treating her husband like a failure. She says his job, his office, and the people he works with are like home to him “ ... and still, he was willing to risk it all for a stranger who needed his help. You and I may not know what that is, but it's not failure.”
The series of setbacks against Bilott seem endless. He not only faces opposition from DuPont, but also from the state government. The federal government isn't much help, either. When he overcomes one obstacle to justice for his clients, another is put in front of him. Perhaps Bilott's greatest victory is a massive epidemiological study of the effects of PFOA chemicals on over 60,000 people (part of a settlement of the lawsuit) confirming the health effects of exposure to the chemicals. He also wins multimillion dollar class action settlements against DuPont, noted at the end of the film.
The greatest achievement of the film, however, is not a recitation of facts and the mere telling of a story about chemical dumping, it is how this tragedy is put in human terms -- the human cost of all those people exposed to these chemicals. The consequences of that exposure is told in the face of Wilbur Tennant and others. Bill Camp gives a stellar performance as the gruff, stoic farmer at the heart of the story. His face tells the story of the anger, the suffering and the tragedy caused by a giant company's actions.
Conservatives have long argued that government regulations of chemical companies, and most other companies, are unnecessary and costly to society. The problem with that argument is that the profit motive sometimes leads to immoral, irresponsible behavior. Unregulated, companies have historically ignored the long term environmental and health effects of their actions. If there is no immediate cost to the company of actions such as chemical dumping, it continues. If companies are not held to account by government actions, legal or regulatory, they continue to engage in actions like those of DuPont, and many other companies.
The acting in this film is excellent by Ruffalo, Camp, Hathaway and others. Director Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”) successfully conveys powerful messages of tragedy and moral outrage that power Bilott's tireless pursuit of justice. There are echoes of another movie, “Erin Brockovich,” here. This kind of massive corporate and governmental failure to protect public health and safety has happened before. It is happening now. It will happen again. It is an aspect of human nature. This film rates a B+.
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