There have been many film stories in the last couple of decades that have brought to public awareness instances of corporate misconduct and the people who have the courage to challenge them. “Dark Waters” is another film that can proudly stand beside the likes of “Erin Brockovich” and “A Civil Action” showcasing underdog lawyers going up against corporate giants.
Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, the newest partner at the Cincinnati-based Taft law firm. He’s a corporate defense attorney and Taft is actively trying to land DuPont chemical company as one of their clients. When a scruffy guy lugging a box full of old VHS tapes shows up at the firm’s posh lobby asking for Bilott, he reluctantly leaves a partner’s meeting to see what the hubbub is about. The visitor is farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) and he wants Bilott to represent him against DuPont, convinced that the company is responsible for the death of his cattle herd and more. He’s got an in with Bilott, too. He’s neighbors with Bilott’s grandmother. Rob actually spent time on Tennant’s farm as a kid while growing up in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
“Dark Waters” is well named as feelings it evokes are dark, indeed. The issue: not only are Tennant’s cows dying, but he and his wife are sick, too. Lots of other folks in town show similar symptoms. Their land abuts DuPont’s and the chemical run-off has gotten into the streams the cows drink from as well as the ground water. Rob convinces his boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), to let him take the case, thinking this would be a relatively simple matter. Not so. Anything but, actually.
Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott in "Dark Waters" (Focus Features)
Upon receiving hundreds of boxes of documents from DuPont, Rob meticulously sifts through them all. Bottom line: DuPont knew this chemical was harmful and did nothing about it. Rob risks his job trying to convince his law partners to take the case. After all, they usually do the defending. Terp gets behind Rob when he produces overwhelming evidence that people's very lives are at stake.
On the home front, Rob’s family life is suffering. Anne Hathaway plays Rob’s wife, Sarah. She’s a lawyer herself who left practice to be a stay-at-home mom to their three boys. As the case drags on over the course of years, Sarah experiences the emotional ups and downs of marriage to a spouse obsessed with his work. But she realizes that the cause he fights for is greater than any one person or family. The film is not shy about showing how the Bilott’s lived Catholic faith strengthens them throughout the long legal battle.
Anne Hathaway as Sarah Bilott in "Dark Waters" (Focus Features)
Mark Ruffalo is convincing as Rob Bilott. His pathos comes through in Rob’s quiet but tenacious persistence that DuPont be held responsible for what they’ve done. Hathaway shines as does Tim Robbins. Smaller parts by Bill Pulmann and Mare Winningham lend gravitas and a little much-needed humor to the film. The real prize, however, goes to Bill Camp and his embodiment of Tennant so much so that you might need an interpreter to understand his West Virginia accent.
“Dark Waters” calls upon all of us to do what’s right to help those around us even if that causes discomfort and suffering. We may not be involved in something as dramatic as Rob Bilott and loving our neighbor doesn’t have to be extraordinary. But it might be. It might mean we have to sacrifice our comfort and preferences. Loving our neighbor often times means embracing the Cross.