Last weekend saw the US release of Dark Waters, director Todd Haynes’s true-life account of corporate defense attorney turned environmental activist Robert Bilott’s (Mark Ruffalo) decade-plus struggle to expose DuPont Chemical Company. His expensive, exhaustive crusade grew from his discovery that DuPont was knowingly poisoning West Virginia’s water supply with toxic chemicals (specifically, PFAs, or per-and-polyfluoroalkyl), which resulted in the conglomerate settling a class-action lawsuit to the tune of $671m in 2017.
Although the arthouse-inclined Haynes has explored themes of chemical contagion and individual infection previously (most notably in his 1995 psychological horror breakout Safe), Dark Waters is something of a departure for him, a mainstream social message movie by way of the classical conspiracy thriller and legal drama. The project was brought to him by star and producer Ruffalo, a longtime environmental activist who has used the film’s publicity tour to speak at length about the catastrophic effects of chemical pollution caused by the likes of DuPont, Monsanto and other giant corporations. Dark Waters has been called routine by some, but it is also clearly a passion project for its makers, with Ruffalo and Haynes the latest in a long line of Hollywood heavyweights to tackle real life corporate maleficence in the hopes of shaping public discourse and effecting actual political change.
To that end, they’re already making some people nervous: a recent report from a Wall Street analyst who watched Dark Waters described a scenario wherein the film, should it prove a big enough hit with audiences, causes DuPont’s stock price to drop. Others have also suggested heightened scrutiny may make it difficult for the company to settle an ongoing lawsuit with its former performance chemical division and co-defendant in the class action lawsuit at the center of Dark Waters, Chemours Co. In an appropriate bit of self-fulfilling prophecy, this speculation already caused DuPont shares to take a 2.7% hit the week before release.
Observers are quick to note previous examples of Hollywood exposés of large corporations, specifically Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar darling Erin Brockovich, which dramatized its titular heroine’s crusade against PG&E for a similar case of water poisoning, as well as Mike Nichols’ Silkwood, about the late whistleblower Karen Silkwood’s attempts to prove energy company Kerr-McGee’s liability for poisoning members of its workforce (herself included).
In both examples, the companies at the center of the movies did indeed come under renewed scrutiny, although it’s hard to prove they saw any repercussions other than sustained PR headaches. By the time those films came along, the settlements had already been decided in court and public opinion had already soured. The films acted less as urgent calls to action than reminders of the long, hard slog required to hold big business accountable.
Such is likely to be the case with Dark Waters. Any hope that DuPont might be made to suffer further setbacks as a result of renewed attention might be sadly misplaced. Immediately ahead of the film’s release, the company’s stock was actually on the rise, thanks to Deutsche Bank adding it as a Catalyst Call Buy, with the reasoning that the film is likely to “add clarity and remove overhang from the stock”. This is indicative of the amoral operation of Wall Street as a whole, which similarly saw the company’s stock rise upon it agreeing to the massive settlement in 2017. This is to say nothing of the unlikelihood of Dark Waters catching on with audiences the way Brockovich or Silkwood did. Those movies came out during a very different time for both movies and politics, and while Dark Waters’ limited first weekend box office is solid, the notion that a muted adult drama about an environmental scandal from several years back could capture the zeitgeist and hold it long enough to cause an industry titan like DuPont any long lasting damage is questionable.
Much in the same way movies have been shown to influence people’s politics without necessarily leading to quantifiable political change, dramatic films that tackle big business head on may well shape their public image – consider how much we associate Hearst Communications with Citizen Kane, Facebook with The Social Network, or, for that matter, the name DuPont with the grim business at the center of Foxcatcher – without necessarily forcing them to change their business practices or affecting their bottom line.
On the other hand, documentaries have shown a far greater propensity for not only influencing public perception of individual companies, but also bringing about actual ground-level change. The examples are readily available: Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine convinced Kmart to halt its sale of handguns, while Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me forced McDonald’s to acknowledge the film’s charges in television ads before ultimately discontinuing its “Super-Size” portions and introducing healthier menu options. And then, of course, there is the case of Blackfish and SeaWorld.
The film’s exposé of SeaWorld’s mistreatment of animals and endangerment of employees lead the Orlando-based sea-park franchise to manufacture false polling and data (which would eventually lead to a class action lawsuit from misled investors), invest in a huge online public relations campaign, and lodge an official complaint with the US Department of Labor against an employee who took part in the documentary, all to no avail. Attendance and revenue plummeted in the months following Blackfish’s release, partners and performers cut ties with the park, state legislators introduced bills banning Orca captivity, and company stock saw a 50% drop-off in value. In the end, SeaWorld had to shutter its main attractions of live killer whale shows and end its orca breeding program.
Blackfish forced people to take a stand on a company they probably hadn’t given much thought to, which was a big reason why it was so effective. That’s something most feature film exposés don’t have going for themselves. Much as Lionsgate’s upcoming Fox News drama Bombshell is unlikely to alter anyone’s pre-existing opinion about the rightwing network, Dark Waters probably won’t change anyone’s mind about DuPont, a faceless conglomerate that nobody outside of investors and partners likes, but which we can’t personally divest ourselves from as easily as we can SeaWorld or big tobacco. Best-case scenario, Dark Waters helps raise awareness about the larger environmental catastrophe at the center of its story, becoming for PFAs what The Misfits was to horse meat manufacturing, Philadelphia was to Aids, or An Inconvenient Truth and The Day After Tomorrow (no, seriously) were to climate change.
Regardless of its ultimate impact, we would be wrong simply shrugging off a film like Dark Waters. In this current cinematic landscape, in which every single aspect of film-making and moviegoing has become increasingly corporatized, the willingness of studios to produce movies that take on big business is by no means a guarantee moving forward. It’s not hard to picture a future in which a once-standard legal thriller like Dark Waters looks positively radical in hindsight.