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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2019 |  9 minutes (2,330 words)

About halfway through Dark Waters, after corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has agreed to hear out farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), after he has seen that hundreds of cows on the Tennant farm have died, after he has connected this to their town’s water system, after he has linked that to the chemical company DuPont, after he has tied that to PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acid), after he has found that PFOAs are a man-made forever chemical that can cause tumours and that the company that runs the town is effectively destroying everything within it, after all of that he’s about to sit down his pregnant wife (Anne Hathaway) to explain it to her when she looks at him square in the face and says, “I’m not listening to this.”                          

That should have been the tagline for the movie. It should be the tagline for the world. Dark Waters’ largely ignored release mirrors the larger apathetic response to the climate crisis as a whole. And yet a number of critics who saw it threw away their nonstick pans (PFOA is used to create Teflon), proving the film had the power to spur people on to some kind of action. But if it’s that effective and that timely — show me a global corporation that isn’t hoarding power and destroying the planet — why is no one talking about it? Why did only two movies seem to grab all the column inches over the past few weeks: Marriage Story, a movie about Noah Baumbach’s (sorry, “a couple’s”) divorce, and The Irishman, a movie about an aging mobster? Surely the planet has greater reach being, you know, where we actually live? 

That seems to be the problem. Dark Waters is not just about one plutonium plant (Silkwood), a single nuclear power plant (The China Syndrome), or even a Catholic church abuse conspiracy (Spotlight), it’s a story about systemic corruption that courses through the entire world. As the film’s director, Todd Haynes, told the New Yorker, “There’s no silver bullet, no magic solutions.” No one wants to listen to that.

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Environmental films have been around almost as long as films themselves, and our responses to them have varied as much as our responses to the natural world. Pare Lorentz’s 1936 short The Plow That Broke the Plains, about how aggressive farming created the Dust Bowl, was actually sponsored by the U.S. government. But then World War II ended and America got richer, which meant a lusher population if not a more fruitful landscape. Lorentz wanted to keep making political movies (and what are environmental films if not political), but no one was funding them — one of the most popular films of the 1940s was called The Best Year of Our Lives. Then, in 1958, a woman named Olga Owens Huckins noticed that ten of her favorite birds had died after a DDT mixture was sprayed around her home and alerted her biologist friend Rachel Carson — she responded by writing Silent Spring.

With the 1962 arrival of Carson’s opus on pesticides — the DDT mosquito spray turned out to be killing Huckins’s birds, poisoning marine life, and was possibly also carcinogenic to humans — Americans awoke to the world around them and its abuse by corporate America. The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 (not to mention Earth Day) to sate their concerns, while activist groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth sprouted up, outcrops from the era’s wider counterculture movement. This was an epoch in which regular people speaking truth to power could actually be heard. In 1976, All the President’s Men was one of the top five highest grossing films of the year and it remains the high-water mark of whistleblowing movies, while 1979 remains one of the best years ever for overtly political filmmaking in Hollywood. That year both Norma Rae, the Sally Field starrer about union activist Crystal Lee Sutton, and The China Syndrome, about the safety coverup at a fictional nuclear plant, competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. For the latter, Jack Lemmon won Cannes’ best actor for his role as the plant’s shift supervisor, and for the former, Field won the best actress Oscar. Both films were critical and commercial successes. It didn’t hurt that the nuclear power industry accused China Syndrome of mendacity, only to be hoisted on its own petard less than two weeks after the film’s premiere by the Three Mile Island nuclear partial meltdown and radiation leak in Pennsylvania.

But the 1980s came along and activism turned into consumerism. The average American now wanted reassurance, not revolution. So they reverted to conservatism, they pushed the government to deregulate, and instead of paying taxes, they watched their money pile up around them as they stayed indoors watching MTV, only trekking to the movies for escapist blockbusters. They were encouraged to buy and buy and buy, spending rather than questioning. If there was disaffection, it wasn’t with the corruption of higher powers so much as the corruption of their own psyches. In the midst of all this, Silkwood was released in 1983, with Meryl Streep playing another whistleblower. Despite its star power — Streep being Streep, Cher getting serious, Kurt Russell going dramatic — the film didn’t have the same success as its predecessors. Audiences now preferred ghostbusters and gremlins and Indiana Jones, an archeologist who unearths fortune rather than failure.

In the following decade, going to see a movie about the planet usually meant going to see an action movie with an non-man-made threat — asteroids were a favorite. From Deep Impact to Armageddon to Dante’s Peak to Volcano, these were movies about nature attacking us rather than the other way around. It speaks to how out of touch they were that Disney executives of all people, part of the corporate community that helped mold Hollywood into an action-hero-centric fantasy universe, would think that Michael Mann’s studious 1999 slow burner The Insider, about Brown & Williamson Tobacco’s attempt to silence whistleblowing biochemist Jeffrey Wigand, would have the same traction as All the President’s Men two decades prior. Despite its seven Oscar nominations, it didn’t land a huge audience.  Circumstances were different for Erin Brockovich, the film about an energy corporation poisoning a California community that came out a year later. Julia Roberts was one of the biggest stars in the world and though she wasn’t playing a superhero, the story presented her as its clear heroine with the enemy an equally clear corporate entity (Pacific Gas and Electric) negligently harming a specific location. The film is shot warmly, the dialogue is colorful, and the narrative is propulsive. Most important, it has a happy ending. The road to Erin Brockovich’s $2.5 million bonus at the end of the film led to an Oscar for Roberts and $256.3 million in worldwide box office.

That was the last time a big screen eco-thriller saw that kind of fanfare, the dissipating attention coinciding (after September 11th) with dissipating attention to nature as a whole. A Gallup poll graph tracking Americans’ interest in environmental protection versus economic growth from 1985 to 2019 shows the former steadily decreasing to a trough around 2011 — the aftermath of the great recession of 2008 — before it starts increasing again, while the latter is almost its mirror opposite. So the more people focused on the economy, the less they did on the environment and vice versa. It’s telling that the media’s favorite climate movie of the past two decades is The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich’s 2004 B-movie in which a series of weather events coalesce into a new ice age (he had it the wrong way around). More of a grab at cash than epiphany, the Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle is essentially nightmare nature porn, the money shot a hero conquering climate change. Unfortunately, the real story is a lot less euphoric. “We’re all participating in the climate crisis — if there is an enemy, it’s us,” Per Espen Stoknes, author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, told the New York Times in 2017.

An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film of former vice president Al Gore’s 2004 global warming slideshow, sort of tried to get that across. Despite its dryness, audiences seemed to have some thirst for an updated climate checkup and upon its release, it broke box office records, got standing ovations, and won the Oscar for best documentary. It has been credited with rejuvenating the environmental movement, though the aforementioned Gallup graph questions how much it actually did. This wasn’t like Blackfish, where it was clear SeaWorld was to blame, or Super Size Me, which could point the finger at McDonald’s. Who do you hold accountable for global warming? As Stoknes said, “It’s hard to go to war against ourselves.” 

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More than a decade elapsed before Sir David Attenborough shocked his audiences by finally changing his tone from wonder to dread in the Netflix series Our Planet. “I would much prefer not to be a placard-carrying conservationist. My life is the natural world,” he told TIME. “But I can’t not carry a placard if I see what’s happening.” The natural historian was able to piggyback climate change awareness off an established brand in the way HBO miniseries Chernobyl would later riff on the 1986 disaster everyone knew about. Proving that television seems to be more hospitable to climate content, the latter dominated the discourse for weeks. Part of that was the arrestingly horrific first episode, but much of the talk also heavily associated the worst nuclear disaster in history with Trump. “We look at this president who lies, outrageous lies, not little ones but outstandingly absurd lies,” show creator Craig Mazin told the Los Angeles Times. “The truth isn’t even in the conversation. It’s just forgotten or obscured to the point where we can’t see it. That’s what Chernobyl is about.”

Dark Waters isn’t so different. Though it’s based on a lesser-known disaster, this one is farther reaching. The film adapts the 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich about Bilott suing DuPont on behalf of thousands of West Virginians and Ohioans affected by PFOA (the company settled for nearly $700 million in 2017), so the events it dramatized are more recent and the ties to those in power more direct than Chernobyl would be. “I hope that the movie starts to spur bigger conversation about who our government is actually working on behalf of,” Ruffalo, who is also a producer on the film, recently told Fast Company in the rare bit of mainstream coverage. Instead we were too busy trying to figure out how autobiographical Marriage Story was or whether Martin Scorsese was right about Marvel movies not being real cinema. When Haynes’s Dark Waters was covered, the question was not why this stylish auteur had made this ambling eco-thriller, but why he hadn’t made anything else. A master of deconstruction, Haynes had in fact denatured the genre beyond its basic elements — the company, the chemical, the casualty, the turncoat — to create a film that echoes the futility of our current circumstances. Bilott isn’t a hero; he’s a human being who sees a fellow human being destroyed by a corporation, who is himself destroyed by trying to help. Every advance is only an inch, every setback a foot. When he finally, after years, uncovers the truth, when he proves DuPont has in fact poisoned people, there is no happy ending. DuPont simply rejects reality and refuses to accept responsibility, forcing Bilott to file no fewer than 3,535 personal injury lawsuits.

Haynes was inspired by Silkwood and All the President’s Men, but the world we live in is now DuPont’s. This is a year in which only 65 percent of polled Americans believe in prioritizing environmental protection at the risk of economic growth, in which the latest climate talks ultimately came to nothing because world leaders would rather quibble over technicalities; a year in which six of the top 10 grossing films were made by Disney, in which a movie like Dark Waters actually increases the stocks of the company it calls out because, as the president has proven time and again, being honest about how awful you are is more rewarding that not being awful at all.

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“Here’s the thing: for many of us, climate change isn’t a disaster movie, it’s a kitchen sink drama,” climate scientist Kate Marvel wrote in Scientific American earlier this year. And though we’ll watch kitchen sink dramas, we prefer our humdrum slogs toward justice illuminated by big stars, or at least a romantic plot. Climate change is too relentlessly depressing; we need some kind of hope so that it doesn’t all seem so impossible, or at least distracts us from the allure of giving up. But I can’t think of anything less hopeful than denial. I can’t think of many things more depressing than the woman sitting next to me scrolling through her phone during our screening of Dark Waters while Bilott described how a company had put so much PFOA into the world that she almost certainly had some of it inside her body — maybe the critics who watched the movie and just wondered why Haynes hadn’t made another lesbian melodrama; maybe the wider audience that continues to go to the movies and conduct the various other aspects of their lives without focusing on the largest scale of all because it’s too abstract compared to an unpaid bill or a sick relative; maybe the part of that audience that could actually change things and doesn’t, like that scene in Dark Waters where Bilott holds up a picture of a baby with a congenital deformity and DuPont’s CEO, while affected, ultimately does nothing. As Haynes explained to The New Yorker: “There’s no way to just end corporate greed and corruption. But there are steps to take, and we just have to keep taking them.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.