The Politics of Todd Haynes 'Dark Waters'
Just before everyone was locked down and the cinemas closed, Dark Waters was released in UK cinemas. The film is directed by Todd Haynes and stars Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a corporate defence attorney who is confronted by the misdeeds of a major American chemical company. Bilott changed sides and represented a farmer (and subsequently many other Americans) as he sued the company, DuPont, for inappropriately dealing with chemical waste and misleading the government.
The film is based on a true story – the lawyer Robert Bilott really did sue DuPont on behalf of residents of the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia. The central point of the lawsuits is that waste products from the manufacture of a popular household product – Teflon – had contaminated the drinking water of humans and animals to levels far beyond safety.
I’m not in the business of reviewing films, though I will say that I enjoyed it. Instead, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the politics of the film. They are very populist, as you might imagine. Bilott begins the movie on the fringes of the corporate world of which he is part. When the farmer, Wilbur Tennant, arrives at his office, Bilott appears scandalised by having someone so out of place associated with him. We learn that this is because he comes from a background somewhat different from those with whom he works. He almost confesses that this man came to him because he comes from the same West Virginian community as his grandmother. This is presented as if he is embarrassed to make the admission and his boss (played by Tim Robbins) eventually replies, ‘you can be from West Virginia – I won’t tell anyone’. This line plays less like a joke, as much as an acknowledgement that the admission will not torpedo his promising career. With one man, at least.
The film presents the corporate world of these lawyers and DuPont as at a significant remove from the main body of Americans. It is the contempt that these organisations hold for the average citizen that allows corporations to act as they do. If they were capable of full recognising them as fellow citizens, then they could not be so cavalier with their health in the pursuit of profit. The film effectively conveys this once Bilott starts to mount his challenge: the most apparent manifestation of this is the disparaging use of the word ‘cowhand’ to dismiss Wilbur Tennant’s significance. The antagonism also cuts both ways – locals remind Bilott that he is not of the typical West Virginian population when the case is delayed. Despite his efforts to help his association with corporate America mean he is still tainted. These people have been burned by lawyers before.
As Bilott gets drawn in and his case evolves he starts to take on more of these populist attitudes. Early on, Wilbur Tennant accuses him of swallowing whatever line DuPont feeds him. He mainly trusts others who belong to the sphere in which he now moves. As time goes on, that starts to shift, and eventually, he utters one of the most famous lines in the film: ‘We protect us. We do. Nobody else. Not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us.’ Such a sentiment is practically a populist manifesto. In the same scene, he utters a line familiar to anti-establishment politicians the world over – ‘the system is rigged.’ Populism runs into some quite severe philosophical issues – especially when considered alongside ideas of democracy – but that doesn’t seem to hurt its enduring appeal.
It’s worth observing, though, that this is more the populist politics of a Bernie Sanders rather than the nationalist, right-wing politics of Donald Trump and his allies. Such distinctions can be quite hard to make when comparing urban and the rural, or the farmer and the lawyer. The way that the film makes this clear is in the relationship between Bilott and his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway). Hathaway stands by Bilott as his career suffers reverses and goes so far as to chide her husband’s boss when he is hospitalised from severe stress.
Sarah Barlage Bilott is no stereotype of the plucky housewife, however. She is capable of running the household on her own. She makes it clear that Bilott’s crusade on behalf of West Virginia has left her with much to handle alone, and that he has little sway in such matters. More crucially, she is presented as a promising lawyer in her own right. The film makes little jibes at the expense of the chauvinistic attitudes of older, more senior lawyers. Sarah may have given up her career for the sake of the family. Still, the film’s dialogue seems to display implicit endorsement of gender equality.
In the end, though, the film sounds that note of ‘common sense’. Such notions are almost always problematic once you start to pick at them, but the film doesn’t do that kind of work. Rather, Bilott is told early on that he won’t get the truth from corporate America or the government. By the end, Bilott acknowledges that the uneducated farmer said that to him on the first day and that he didn’t listen. It is by embracing that tenet that Bilott can learn, and finally force DuPont to settle with the residents of Parkersburg for a massive sum. The centrality of these ideas is likely what makes the film feel so current, and so in keeping with the present political moment.
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.