This film is something of a departure for director Todd Haynes, a far cry from the languid luminosity of Carol or Far From Heaven. Instead, he offers us a compelling exposé, a true story told with a devastating urgency.
Because there’s no getting away from it: this is urgent. Based on Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times article, The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, it tells of corporate greed and negligence on a shocking scale. So far, so depressingly predictable. But there’s more: a dastardly cover-up designed to protect profits at all costs. And the costs are high.
DuPont is a massive company, and one of their most successful products is Teflon. Yes, that Teflon, the stuff that makes your pans non-stick and waterproofs your raincoat. There’s no denying its usefulness, nor its ubiquity. Unfortunately, it also turns out that there’s no denying the toxic nature of one of its components, namely PFOA, a ‘forever chemical’ that is very difficult to break down, no matter how it is disposed of. Not that DuPont have proved themselves too worried about its disposal: they’ve just dumped it in landfill, allowing it to pollute the water.
I should confess here that chemistry is not my strong point. Luckily, the script makes clear that hero lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is also a bit deficient in the arena of scientific-understanding; he needs the basics explaining, which gives us the chance to learn alongside him. Where Bilott does excel, though, is in the law – and in tenacity, morality and grit.
The movie is unflinching in its revelations, detailing Bilott’s response to farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp)’s out-of-the-blue request for help. Tennant is not Bilott’s typical client; he’s an environmental lawyer, yes, but of the corporate variety, more used to defending chemical companies than suing them. But Tennant’s evidence is both disturbing and irrefutable: DuPont’s landfill, bordering his farm, has visibly contaminated his creek; his cattle are sick and mad and dying at an alarming rate.
Despite DuPont’s attempt to forestall and stymie his investigations, Bilott persists, and discovers that DuPont have known about the potentially lethal nature of their product for decades. And it’s not just the cows: women working on the Teflon line have given birth to babies with distinctive facial deformities. It’s a poison.
PFOA wasn’t a banned substance then. It is now. But lots of other, similar substances are not. And surely no one on earth is naïve enough to believe that there aren’t countless other companies committing countless other atrocities in pursuit of the mighty dollar, no matter how many of us are endangered by their greed? The 1% don’t even see the rest of us; we’re incidental to them, and if we’re damaged, we’re just collateral.
Yup, this is a spectacularly squalid and depressing tale, as dark and dingy as the cinematography. But there are a few beacons of hope: there is the irascible, taciturn Tennant; there is Bilott, his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), and his boss, Tim Perp (Tim Robbins) – all determined to do the right thing despite the personal costs. A few good people really can make a difference.
And at least in the US they can reach a wide audience, via the robust journalism in some of their broadsheets and through their powerful movie industry. No wonder Todd Haynes felt he had no choice but to make this vital, disturbing film.