Dark Waters is one hell of a movie. In the film sub-sub-genre of “corporate malfeasance thrillers,” it stands apart as singularly gritty, grinding, and unflinching in its refusal to manufacture drama beyond what’s already waiting in the life and death reality of an entire town being poisoned by a corporate giant. It even makes a point of how banal and drawn out the crime and the cover up is; the timeline of the film covers sixteen years on the same case. There are endless scenes of Mark Ruffalo shuffling through paper as Du Pont tries to bury him in discovery, long shots of the countryside, long moments where the characters are silent and contemplative. It’s a massive compliment to the director and the cast that the film is still gripping and upsetting even as it documents the deliberate, foot-dragging slow walk of Du Pont to the court room.
The movie is based on this massively long and horrifying New York Times article: The Lawyer Who Became Du Pont’s Worst Nightmare
And what it’s about is something that is happening, right now and will continue happening throughout our lives because it involves a chemical that the body doesn’t get rid of recently. My housemate is actually a technician in a lab that does water testing; just a few weeks ago she was telling me that they’re working on procedures for testing for PFOS, which is the killing vector at the heart of Dark Waters.
Incidentally, the EPA just set the safe level of PFOS (or PFOA or C-8 as its called in the movie) at 70 parts per trillion or 0.07 parts per billion, which makes the scene in Dark Waters where a West Virginia government scientist says they’re going to “unveil” a safe level of 150 parts per billion after consulting with Du Pont even more horrifying.
What really struck me about Dark Waters is its inclusion of the absolute cognitive dissonance most working people in America–and probably the rest of the world–live with every day. Anyone who has paid even minor attention to the news, to events around them, knows that large corporations are not to be trusted. That pharmaceutical companies actively push addictive medications that have caused an epidemic of deaths. That oil companies knew for decades that the carbon economy that made them rich was and still is causing global climate change. That chemical companies poison towns. That auto companies cover up their unsafe products. And on, and on. We all know these things. We all know that corporations are not looking out for us, never have, and never will.
Corporations do not care about us, but almost all of us are dependent on them in some way for our livelihood. Corporations do not care about us, but we are also aware that we are each a small part of those corporations. We are good people; corporations are run by people just like us, who make decisions every day just like us, and we don’t want to hurt anyone. Corporations do horrible, destructive, deadly things, and by being dependent on them, employed by them, how much of that sin might roll downhill to rest on our shoulders?
That’s what Dark Waters shows us, again and again. When Mark Ruffalo says, without any irony at all, that he’s sure Du Pont will want to know if they find out someone at the plant is doing things wrong. When a resident of the town says that she’s sure her blood test will show nothing is wrong, because “Du Pont is good people.” When the lawsuit against the company makes someone in town angry enough to try to burn the lead plaintiff’s house down, as if they’re the one that’s hurt people, not the chemical giant that’s letting its chemical waste leach into the wells and streams.
All of those moments rang horribly true to me, because I’ve witnessed similar ones every time I’ve worked in connection with the petroleum industry. Some in the industry are dedicated climate change deniers, and I think that’s in a large part because it’s easier than facing the truth that you’ve made a good living by selling the future of your great-great-grandchildren. Some are sure that the ingenuity of humanity will find an exist from this road to hell, and in the meantime, they have car payments. I’ve witnessed people say, unironically, that of course we could trust self-reported health and safety data from a company, because don’t they want to do things right? Don’t they want to look out for their employees?
(And if the company is looking out for their employees, they certainly don’t need a union. Don’t be silly. Just like the company knows its own business better than the wasteful, ineffective, silly government that just gets in the way of progress. Companies can regulate themselves; they don’t want to hurt people, right?)
The level of historical amnesia that can strike anyone when it comes to pursuing their livelihood is breathtaking. It’s frustrating. And perhaps it’s horrifyingly necessary for mental integrity in the modern world. Yes, we know that company cut corners and caused an explosion that killed people, but that was an isolated incident; that was bad people who made mistakes; we’re all good people here, aren’t we?
The greatest horror of all of it is that we don’t have a choice when it comes to participating. The corporation that poisons your water might be the only employer in town. What do you do then? Do you believe the news and still find the strength to go to work, because the kids need to be fed, even knowing that what you’re doing in some way might be killing yourself, killing them, killing your neighbor? And if you quit your job, what then? You still need to eat, and someone else will take your place because they need to eat, too, and the machine will grind on, belching poison into the sky and leaking it into the soil because the primacy of profit is far more reliable in the corporate world than taxes.
Dark Waters is framed as a thriller, but in its heart I read it as a story of existential horror. We all live in the belly of that beast. We all depend on what is killing us in the long term to survive in the short term. The one glimmer of light we’re offered is the fact that we have each other–and maybe that can be enough. That the system is rigged but the fight can succeed, as we stagger over the finish line half dead, the bodies of our friends left where they’ve fallen.
Maybe the greatest lie we’ve ever been told is that there is no escape from the monster that has swallowed us whole. But pretending that escape is easy or painless would be a lie almost as great; we’re not goats trapped in the stomach of the Big Bad Wolf, waiting for a hero to cut him open and release us. The path to freedom will be much more bloody and difficult, and all we have are our hands and each other.