Political Film Review #604


When heat under Teflon breaks the surface while cooking, small particles of Teflon enter the gastrointestinal system as a poison, a fact brought to light in Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes. That fact, however, was well known to DuPont, which manufactured the product after atomic energy scientists discovered a way to make tanks resist rain with a new chemical. DuPont knew but hid the danger until Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo, who went after DuPont in the 2014 film Foxcatcher) uncovered the evidence in DuPont’s own documents, as reported in the docudrama Dark Waters. But the biopic has many layers, with Bilott heroically enduring much combat in a legal battlefield that spanned more than a decade. The marital and medical tolls on Bilott are also featured in the film.

The film begins in 1975 in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Three teenagers jump a fence to swim after dark in a body of water, only to be chased out by a boat spraying some sort of chemical into the water. The next scene takes place in 1998, when a disheveled farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), arrives in the Cincinnati office of Taft, Stettinius, & Hollister because Bilott’s grandmother recommends him as someone who might solve the problem of the death of most of his cattle. Tennant even brings tapes to document his objections, which neither lawyers nor politicians in his home town will handle for him. Bilott dismisses him in the office but is intrigued by events in his hometown, so he drives to Parkerburg to interview and investigate before deciding to take the case. Although his boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), initially disapproves, since the firm represents corporations, even DuPont, he allows Bilott to proceed if the matter can be quickly handled. But DuPont has no interest in cooperating.

The first case, filed in 1999, is a suit focused on Tennant’s problem. However, DuPont is the largest employer in town, so Tennant becomes a pariah. At a mediation session, DuPont agrees to investigate the problem and provide compensation if they are found liable. Instead, the report is a whitewash, blaming Tennant for poor animal husbandry. Undeterred, Bilott finds an unexplained acronym in a document, and asks the DuPont CEO, Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), to solve the mystery. Considering Bilott too nosy about a DuPont trade secret, he dares him to file suit and says “Fuck You” so loudly that many dinner guests hear, and the lengthy legal battle begins.

In 2000, a court orders DuPont to provide the necessary documentation, resulting in a massive release of documents that might take decades to process. But Bilott persists, finding that DuPont’s scientists had confessed that their Teflon chemical poisons in the Parkersburg stream exceed what is safe for animal and human consumption. Bilott even gains support from Terp, who believes that capitalism is discredited when corporations misbehave so blatantly. Now the case becomes one of the health of humans, who suffer and die due to the contamination. From one client (who wins in 2000 on behalf of his cows), Bilott can potentially raise the ante to a class action involving the health of more than a thousand townspeople in the region. (The Environmental Protection Agency fines DuPont $16.5 million for nonregulation of a dangerous chemical in 2005.) But DuPont is able to delay the ultimate damage award to the West Virginians until 2011, when a jury awards several residents more than $1 million, later agreeing on a payout totally $670 million to 3,550 victims.

The Political Film Society has nominated Dark Waters as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2019.  MH