“Dark Waters” Distributed by Focus Features, 126 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released November 22, 2019:
There’s a scene in the 1976 political drama “All the President’s Men” in which Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward need to request from a Library of Congress staff member every checkout slip processed in the past three years in one of the largest libraries in the world.
“I’m not sure you want ‘em,” the sympathetic librarian tells them, “but I got ‘em.” And in the next shot, the camera slowly pans upward to see the two reporters beginning to sift through tables and tables filled with hundreds of thousands of library checkout slips, in an attempt to find a single clue which will help them to solve the mystery behind the Watergate break-in.
There’s a similar scene in “Dark Waters,” the new fact-based legal thriller from Focus Features now playing in movie theaters across the United States. In the scene, the intrepid attorney played by actor Mark Ruffalo requests from the gigantic DuPort chemical conglomerate records of research material related to the manufacture of one specific compound.
In reluctant compliance with the request--as well as an effort to discourage any future investigation by the government--DuPort sends the attorney dozens and dozens of packing crates filled with records. And with a sigh, Ruffalo as the attorney hunkers down in his law firm’s conference room to begin the Sisyphean task of examining the hundreds of thousands of documents, one by one.
Both scenes are important to their pictures’ narratives, enormously revealing background touches in unusually engrossing movies. The purpose of the segments is plain--that any result, is desirable enough, is worth working for.
If “Dark Waters” and 2000’s “Erin Brockovich” were playing as a double feature at a drive-in theater, you might feel compelled to leave halfway through the second movie...no matter which picture played first. But sometimes surface resemblances can be misleading--while the two pictures have similarities and both are informative and richly entertaining movies, a major difference is that the older picture’s conclusion is more satisfying...mostly because the events of “Dark Waters” are still playing out.
Adapted by screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan from writer Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” in “Dark Waters” a successful and upwardly mobile attorney for a prosperous corporate legal firm places his carefully-plotted career on hold to help a rural farmer pursue a complaint of a local refinery’s waste water is poisoning his cattle...and discovers that the case leads to the highest echelons of corporate America.
If neither DuPont nor Teflon are among the sponsors for this year’s Academy Awards broadcast, don’t be surprised to find Mark Ruffalo’s name among the Best Actor nominees for his role in “Dark Waters.” Ruffalo is the rare performer who puts his money where his mouth is--a dedicated social activist as well as a gifted actor. When the actor combines the two pursuits, people tend to take notice: 2015’s Academy Award-winning “Spotlight” is an example. In “Dark Waters,” Ruffalo seems to be trying hard to blend into the ensemble--after adding a few pounds to portray the real-life Robert Bilott, the actor resembles Oliver Platt--but his talent, and his social conscience, shine through in every scene.
“Dark Waters” is good, solid, smart motion picture entertainment. You have to work a little to keep up with the plot development--this is one picture for which your ninth grade chemistry will come in handy--and the picture’s conclusion isn’t completely reassuring. The ultimate message is as sobering and troubling as it is inspiring: ”THEY don’t protect us--WE protect us.” But if you think about it, that’s what Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and the other founding fathers were telling us all along.
Supporting Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway disguised in a succession of unflattering black wigs is wasted in a nothing role as Ruffalo’s brittle wife, but the reliable old pro Bill Pullman has fun in a showy little role as a seasoned and wiley small-town country lawyer who’s amused to find himself taking on big business for the first time in his career. And ubiquitous supporting player Bill Camp has the role of a lifetime, so persuasive as the crusty West Virginia rancher whose problems set the plot in motion that the viewer might well mistake him for the real deal.
Directed by Todd Haynes, “Dark Waters” is earning superb reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 97% from Rotten Tomatoes and 93% from Metacritic. The picture’s been gaining momentum at the box office--originally placed into a limited release pattern in only five locations across the United States and Canada, the film expanded into 94 theaters during its second week and entered the Box Office Mojo charts in eighteenth place. Now playing in 2012 theaters across the US--about half the number as, say, “Frozen II”--the picture has risen to an impressive sixth place in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.
“Dark Waters” is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, and strong language.