Review: Dark Waters

You wouldn’t think walking in to see the latest film to enter Oscars discussions that you are technically a part of the story, but you are. Whether you grew up in rural West Virginia in the late 1900’s or somewhere else in the world, Dark Waters makes sure to let you know that you are in fact one of the characters. Based on a true story, director Todd Haynes (Carol) embarks to shine a light on the conspiracy behind DuPont, formerly the world’s largest chemical company. As dramatic as the film may seem, it finds it’s roots in real-life horrors. And although this movie isn’t necessarily worth spending the money to see it in theatres (unless these are the only type of movies you see in theatres), the story it tells is worth catching at Redbox or on a streaming platform after it’s out. In the meantime, you can read a little about it here šŸ™‚
Mark Ruffalo (Avengers, Spotlight, Zodiac) stars as corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott, who after making partner in his law firm widely known for defending chemical corporations, finds himself suing DuPont for knowingly poisoning thousands of Americans for over 45 years. Over the course of nearly two decades, Bilott fights to expose DuPont’s secrets and regulate their chemical polymer C8, more commonly known as Teflon.
I will get into more about the film itself, but first here’s a little about what I have learned after watching and reading up on the events after:
PFOA, or C-8, was accidentally developed by a chemist working for DuPont during World War II and was quickly used as a way of waterproofing tanks and other military and industrial applications. That product, once popular and well-funded, began selling in many household applications too as Teflon. Teflon-coated cookware became widely popular in the 1960’s and what people didn’t realize is that the polymer C8 was linked by DuPont to several diseases and deaths in their own factories as well as birth defects in animal trials and then in children. DuPont had been erasing employee records, covering up cases of “DuPont flu,” and dumping or burying chemical waste in the river and surrounding landfills for decades. In 2008, more than 69,000 local residents came forward to be tested for harmful amounts of C8 in their bloodstream, and after 7 years of work the largest epidemiological study in history found that nearly 5% of it’s cases were already sick from linked diseases such as kidney cancer, thyroid disease, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. DuPont settled the class action lawsuit in 2015, paying out $671 million to the 3,550 citizens. They still deny any wrongdoing.
Crazy stuff right?! I probably should have known more about this before going to see the movie, seeing as I have grown up during it’s time. DuPont is also famously known for patenting Styrofoam, artificial turf, nylon, lucite (acrylic), lycra (spandex), Kevlar, and neoprene, all very well-known and widely used materials. The fact that this was so recent was what truly shocked me, and also because earlier this year I was diagnosed with a cancer that was connected to C8 exposure in this study. Whether my cancer was caused by repeated use of Teflon-coated pots and pans, sliding on artificial turf in my indoor soccer games, or something else entirely, it interested me all the more that an enormous U.S. company could literally get away with poisoning people for decades and then receive what equates to “a slap on the wrist.” (Oh and by the way, I had surgery to remove my cancer and all subsequent tests have shown that I am cancer-free for almost 6 months now!)
If you see this movie, do realize that it is very much one-sided. Missing from the film, according to court records DuPont claims that they have always handled PFOA responsibly and that they only knew of it’s probable link to cancers and other diseases since the late 1990’s. They also agreed to reduce the output of PFOA and phased out the chemical completely during the years leading up to their payout. But that doesn’t help the thousands of families who are already suffering from side-effects and deaths that could and should have been prevented. What I like about this film is that Ruffalo shows a reserved tenacity as Bilott in his efforts to find the truth. Bilott is still filing lawsuits against DuPont and 3M (also choosing to hide their findings with C8) and working to eliminate these chemical compounds from being used to make everyday items like waterproof shoes and firefighting foam. Ruffalo brings his best brooding Hulk persona which although fitting for this film isn’t necessarily Oscar-worthy in my book. Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption) and Anne Hathaway (The Hustle, The Devil Wears Prada) both shine in their smaller roles and honestly bring more drama to the scenes they are in with their stellar acting. Furthermore, in the credits I discovered that a child of a former DuPont employee born with birth defects, Bucky Bailey, who was brought forth as evidence of C8 contamination against DuPont, actually played himself in the film as a random encounter with Bilott at a gas station. I found that pretty amazing.
What we are left with at the film’s conclusion is one thought: Was it all worth it? Bilott’s personal life, career, and his own mental and physical health all suffered in the years it took to put together a case and win a “minimal” lawsuit against a giant. For the families affected, yes it was a win but settlement money can’t replace lost loved ones. And although Bilott’s wife assures him when DuPont declares they will fight every single claim that “it doesn’t take away from what you’ve done,” it does seem like a very shallow victory. Even after the payout, DuPont succeeded in a $130 billion merger with Dow Chemical, currently sits at #35 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. public corporations, and cleared over $20 billion in revenue last year. I think that we will truly begin to see the effects of his hard work in the years to come as more and more “forever” chemicals (substances which will never organically break down in the environment) are being investigated and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Ruffalo himself spoke about the film and Bilott’s activism efforts, saying “It’s so hard and thankless and f***ing despairing. Part of the reason I wanted to [make this film] was because I’ve done so much activism.” And he has, for years now. I’m glad that he’s doing what he can to help stop contamination cases like this and others (e.g. Flint, MI water crisis) and I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to help too. So below I copied a website linked to the new Fight Forever Chemicals campaign where you can send a letter to Congress asking them to join the fight against forever chemicals. For reference, 99% of U.S. Americans are believed to now have some level of C8 in their bodies. Below I added a map of known contaminated areas around the U.S. (including the military base where I work), not to cause any stress but rather to understand that we are a part of this and we can help. Thanks for reading, cheers!

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