Dark Waters – A Corporate Lawyer Switches Sides to Battle a Chemical Giant

Stephanie Soechtig’s 2018 investigative documentary, The Devil We Know, was an unflinching look at what happened in Parkersburg, West Virginia, when the DuPont Corporation contaminated the water with a known cancer-causing chemical and then, with the help of the U.S. government, covered up its activities. The documentary packs a wallop because those who suffered from the poisoning tell their harrowing stories. Bucky, whose mother worked at the DuPont plant, cleaning the tanks that contained C8, the chemical used in the production of Teflon, was born with facial deformities. His parents talk about his birth and the many operations he endured. After Bucky marries, he and his wife are fearful about having children who might face the same challenges. 

Bill Camp (left) as Wilbur Tennant and Jim Azelvandre (right) as Jim Tennant

Bucky makes a cameo appearance in the film, Dark Waters, but Director Todd Haynes tackles the Parkersburg tragedy from a different angle, focusing on Robert Bilott, a corporate defense lawyer who winds up switching sides to represent a farmer who blames DuPont for the deaths of his cows. After reading Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine article about Parkersburg, Mark Ruffalo was inspired to make the film. He plays Bilott, a newly-made partner in the Cincinnati law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister.

Founded by the former president, the Taft firm typically defends corporations, including many chemical companies. But when the farmer, Wilbur Tennant (a very effective Bill Camp), shows up at the Taft offices, along with several boxes of videotapes illustrating what’s been happening to livestock on his farm, Bilott finds it hard to look away. A followup visit to the Tennant farm, confirms that DuPont has been dumping the chemicals on nearby land, the toxins seeping into the creek and sickening the cows who drink the water. 

Victor Garber (left) as Phil Donnelly and Tim Robbins (right) as Tom Terp

Still finding his way at the firm, Bilott takes a huge risk asking Taft’s managing partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), to take on the case, on contingency no less. He gets a green light, but immediately runs into a roadblock from DuPont’s general counsel, Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber). When a judge forces DuPont to turn over documents, the corporation dumps on Bilott dozens of boxes containing thousands of documents. Bilott, however, meticulously goes through the papers, uncovering evidence of the coverup.

With the case dragging on for years, Bilott is pressured from all sides. Tennant and the other Parkersburg residents want results. Terp becomes impatient because the firm is financially supporting what looks like a long shot. Bilott’s wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), is angry because the firm has cut his compensation. Bilott begins to show the physical effects of the stress, even  passing out and ending up in the hospital.

Anne Hathaway as Sarah Barlage

While Bilott made partner at a prestigious firm, Ruffalo shows that he hasn’t yet grown into a corporate “suit” and can still relate to the residents of a small town like Parkersburg. While Robbins’ Terp is intimidating, Bilott never backs down from pursuing the action against DuPont. Camp is particularly effective as Tennant, who has to carry the mantle as the lead Parkersburg resident who has been harmed by DuPont. The disappointment is Hathaway, who is saddled with a script that has her character depicted as hysterical and shrill.

Although those harmed by DuPont’s actions did finally receive financial compensation, many more died from cancer or continued to suffer the effects. And this staggering fact is cause for concern: the chemicals used to produce Teflon can be found in virtually every living thing on the planet.

Top photo: Bill Camp (left) as Wilbur Tennant and Mark Ruffalo (right) as Robert Bilott

Photo Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

About Charlene Giannetti (389 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that completed filming on February 1, 2020. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.