Investigative dramas can be a great gateway for audiences to learn about historic stories that they ignored when those stories were news. Todd Haynes‘ Dark Waters is no exception, as it reminds audiences about the true story of how DuPont got away with poisoning West Virginians for years. Dark Waters doesn’t just focus on the story it uncovers but also the toil of having damning knowledge without the power to save the people that are in danger.
In 1998, corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) a farmer from his hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia. Tennant wants to sue chemical giant DuPont for poisoning the creek that his cows drink from and the lawyers in his town are too scared to face the company. Bilott gained success at his firm for defending huge corporations like DuPont against cases similar to Tennant’s, but the connection to his hometown persuades Bilott to help. He uncovers a much larger scandal than contaminated runoff into one small farm: a massive poisoning spanning decades. Bilott may have found out the truth, but getting this information out to the public becomes an even harder task.
There are very few movies that accurately depict the role industry plays in keeping small West Virginia towns afloat while simultaneously ruining them. In Dark Waters, the people are complacent and even thankful for what DuPont has done for their town of Parkersburg. As Bilott drives through the town, we see DuPont sponsors just about everything, including kids’ baseball fields. They spend money on the community, employing most of the working class in the town, and therefore they would never want to hurt them. This assumption may be out of ignorance, but not because the town is stupid. They’ve been given no other choice but to believe DuPont is good for them.
When Bilott discovers that everything they’ve been fed is a lie, he’s not just up against a giant corporation. He also has to convince an entire stubborn town to question what they have been told. People don’t want to do the work it takes to face the truth. Lawyers don’t want to fight powerful companies. Citizens don’t want to admit they have been lied to. It’s easier to believe a lie and live in simple ignorance as they have done for decades unless threatened with overwhelming death like Wilbur Tennant experiences. The people that shake up this town, for its own good, have to face threats from the neighbors they are trying to help, too. It takes immense bravery to speak up, and Bilott and Tennant certainly show that in Dark Waters.
Bilott also has to struggle with the idea that this knowledge may stop future evil from DuPont, but it can never undo the damage that has already been done to West Virginia. He’ll have to inform thousands of the damage DuPont has done to them, which may lead to health issues, cancer, and birth defects in their children. Bilott may be able to help them find answers to these issues, but he’ll never be able to truly save them. He works hard to uncover the story about DuPont and has to dedicate a lot of his life to the cause. No matter how hard he tries, Bilott cannot save the people from what’s been done to them in their ignorance. For someone as passionate as Bilott, this kind of powerlessness is agonizing to live with.
Showing the more cynical side of an investigative drama is inherent to this specific story, but it also speaks to our country as a whole. In many cases, these stories are going to be forgotten and the hard work of people like Bilott will go unappreciated by a lot of our country until someone makes a movie about it. In the days of All the President’s Men, stories like that hardly shook the nation more than once a decade. With access to so much media and so much journalism now, people are bombarded daily with horrendous news about institutions we thought we could trust. It’s impossible for us to remember everything that’s been in the news in the past year, and people tend to forget about the mistreatment of working-class and poor Americans quicker than they do more sensational stories.
This story lasted well into 2017 when DuPont settled lawsuits brought against them by the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia, and yet a lot of people will go into Dark Waters without knowing anything about the case. Robert Bilott is not only burdened by the exhausting work of fighting a huge corporation, or just the task of convincing people to question the bedrock of their community, but also by the fact that all of his work can’t guarantee that the country will remember what he uncovered.
Thankfully, Haynes’ brings his story to fresh eyes and for a moment, people will care about a story involving the mistreatment of working-class people. Hopefully, this film will make audiences question the companies that run our country and how they take advantage of hard-working people every day.
Dark Waters hits select theaters November 22nd and everywhere December 6th.