When the Greek hero Theseus ventured into the center of a maze, he found a dreadful monster, the Minotaur. There was a fight. Theseus emerged victorious. Now, let’s leave myth behind and consider a contemporary situation: Picture an ambitious young corporate lawyer, Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), crouching on the floor of a warehouse, surrounded by piles and piles of boxes, files, and notes. This is his Maze. At its center he finds something just as monstrous—a beast we know by name of DuPont. There’s nothing mythical about this monster. It’s a chemical giant suspected of manufacturing products that are poisoning hundreds of thousands of people. Our young hero takes up the battle. And the winner is... ?
DARK WATERS is based on the true story of a legal tussle between the citizens of the town of Parkersburg, Pennsylvania and a “minotaur” known as the DuPont company. DuPont owns the town. It employs its people. It’s also devouring its citizens: Its nearby factories are poisoning the livestock, the people, the wells and rivers. Something is in the water. Lawyer Bilott, while shouldering his way through the maze of documents, finds references to a mysterious substance called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which turns out to be a form of ammonium salt used as surfactant in the emulsion polymerization of PTFE. It’s a likely carcinogen.
Its best-known product is known today as Teflon.
It coats our pots and pans, our clothes, our carpets. We eat it, we wear it, we walk on it.
Mark Ruffalo lends his quietly charismatic gravitas to the crusading Robert Bilott. He places his firm in jeopardy when he leads the charge against DuPont. While negotiating the legal procedures, delays, deceptive practices arrayed against him, the town around him is dying. His family life suffers. Indeed, he is succumbing to the ills he is endeavouring to expose.
As the latest entry in films investigating social, political, and corporate corruption—just a few months ago, we had Official Secrets, about a whistleblower exposing a conspiracy behind America’s invasion of Iraq—DARK WATERS wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no questioning its crusading zeal and its passionate commitment. Like Robert Bilott, it is driven by what amounts to a monomania. We are drawn into its maze and we hate the Monster at its center. Yet, if we pause and pull back for a moment, we might question its black-and-white depiction of corporate corruption. There’s little room for ambiguity. Teflon and its related products are in all of us, and it’s only a matter of time before we all are affected. We’re scared to death. And the movie offers us little consolation.
Later, out of the theater in the daylight, the movie’s dreadful message behind us, we might pause and do some investigating on our own. We can cruise the internet to see if the ills laid at the door of Teflon are based in fact. Warning: If you do this, you find that Teflon is dangerous, that it’s not dangerous, that we don’t really know.
No matter. The Monster bides its time.
Dark Waters opens in Kansas City theatres on Friday, December 6th.