“Dark Waters” a legal thriller that swims against the tide

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Photo courtesy of Participant Studios

Over Thanksgiving break, the thrilling based-on-true-events drama “Dark Waters” hit the cinema, and it was certainly worth the theater price. As a well-paced, skillfully acted, and incredibly evocative film, “Dark Waters” exceeds expectations by challenging and informing the viewer.

The movie follows the harrowing, lengthy legal battle between West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) and the DuPont chemical company. Although Tennant approaches corporate lawyer Robert Billot (Mark Ruffalo) about health problems with his cows in 1998, the real problems began decades earlier.

After visiting Tennant’s farm, which by that point essentially doubles as a graveyard for 190 cows, Billot keeps digging for information. Tennant shows Billot several abnormal body parts from his deceased cows and tells him about his brother, who sold his property to DuPont after falling ill several years prior. DuPont then created a landfill with the property, which neighbored Tennant’s, and assured him that it was completely safe and only contained dry waste. 

When it becomes clear to Billot that more intrusive legal action must occur, he files a lawsuit against DuPont. Throughout the remainder of the film, Billot is met with obstacle upon obstacle. After sorting through a roomful of unsorted evidence, witnessing threats to his clients, marital tension and stress-related health problems, Billot presents his case with the help of plaintiff Harry Dietzler (Bill Pullman). Dietzler’s unrefined and stalwart attitude in the courtroom provides some comic relief to an overall suspenseful viewing experience.

Finally, after years of scientific investigation the massive cover-up and negligence of the DuPont chemical company reaches a settlement in 2017. Interestingly, PFOA, the chemical responsible for the health problems of thousands of Americans, was first synthesized as a part of the Manhattan Project. 

Although following a specific, real life story, the lessons learned from this masterfully created film extend beyond just this one lawsuit. In a particularly notable scene, Deitzler gives Billot a tour of his office and describes his strategy in the courtroom. Dietzler stresses that an attorney needs not only to inspire empathy into the jury, but also to instill fear — fear that whatever happened to his client could happen to them.

The character of Robert Billot’s wife, Sarah Billot (Anne Hathaway), should not be overlooked. As a former attorney herself, Sarah Billot’s tenacious yet gentle companionship to Robert Billot supports him through every one of his defeats and victories. Sarah Billot’s tough but maternal attitude anchors Billot’s unstoppable determination to bring justice for his community.  

“Dark Waters” cuts right to the heart of its viewers, challenging them to reconsider their trust of government regulations, multi-billion dollar corporations and even the water they drink every day. Although “Dark Waters” promotes a clear political agenda, the concerns it raises should be treated as bipartisan.

Unlike other legal thrillers, “Dark Waters” spends a significant amount of time capturing the personal life and personality of Billot. Ruffalo’s exceptional performance strongly portrays the struggle of an amiable, yet but resolute man failing to strike a work-life balance. Through the portrayal of Billot’s remarkable compassion, the viewer grows to trust him as an advocate, rather than just seeing him as a single-minded, uncompromising lawyer. 

Overall, this thrilling based-on-true-events drama is a must-see, especially for those more unfamiliar with the current state of national and global threats to water safety. “Dark Waters” will be more widely released throughout the nation on Dec. 6, but is available at select theaters until then. For now, prepare to experience a moving, unsettling story about the haunting remnants of a secret military project, the companies that took advantage of them and the few courageous folks who risked their livelihoods to fight the powers-that-be.

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