The last thing one would expect from Todd Haynes, one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 90s, is a straightforward, rather mainstream, Steven Soderbergh-like whistleblower thriller. But that’s exactly what he has delivered with Dark Waters, the story of Cincinnati attorney Rob Bilott’s decades long legal fight against DuPont over the dumping of thousands of tons of chemicals used in the manufacturing of Teflon onto local land. And yet, why should we be surprised? After all, Haynes, like many other independent directors before him, has given his own spin to such genre standards as the melodrama (Far from Heaven, his homage to Douglas Sirk), the biopic (I’m Not There, where multiple actors played Bob Dylan at different stages of his life) and horror (Safe, his opera prima and an essential text of Queer Cinema). He has even tried his hand at literary adaptations: his critically acclaimed six-part miniseries of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and Carol, his delicate and sensitive take on Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. Dark Waters may not reach the stylistic heights of those films but as a genre exercise, it still delivers the goods.
It also opens theatrically a week after Scott Z. Burns’ The Report, a similar social activist/whistleblowing film about Senate’s investigation into the CIA’s use of torture as part of its Detention and Interrogation Program during George W. Bush’s presidency in the aftermath of 9/11. Both films feature a graphic timeline that helps track down the investigation throughout the years and both feature a lone man who most plow through thousands of pages of documents and printouts to get at the truth. In the case of The Report, that lone warrior is Senate investigator Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) tasked by Senator Dianne Feinstein (a superb Annette Bening) with investigating the CIA’s practices and their effectiveness. He’s ordered to keep personal feelings out of the investigation no matter where it leads him. Jones is single; he seems to have no life outside his job or so the film implies. As the investigation progresses throughout the years, his team shrinks to the point where he is literally the last man standing.
On the other hand, Dark Waters’ Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is married to Sarah (Anne Hathaway in a thankless and underused role), an uber Catholic woman who, during the course of the film gives birth to three children. A corporate defense attorney for law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, Rob is dragged into this case by a farmer who unexpectedly shows up to his office with boxes full of videotapes containing proof of the effect DuPont’s waste disposal is having on his cattle. And how did this farmer find out about Rob’s expertise? Through Rob’s grandmother, of course, who still lives in the small-town of Parkersburg, West Virginia where Rob originally came from and where DuPont has a plant. You know Rob will eventually take on the case even if his decision enrages his colleagues and his law firm’s clients. And you know that, per the genre’s rules, the big bad corporation will throw everything at him to derail his investigation, from the delivery of thousands of boxes containing documents dating back to the late 40s to every type of legal roadblock as Rob seeks compensation for DuPont’s victims. His decades-long fight takes a toll on his health and almost derails his marriage (although like a good woman of faith that seems to have come out of a 1950s melodrama, Sarah also stands by her man). But what truly makes Rob a lone warrior (at least according to Mario Correa’s and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script based on a New York Times Magazine article) is the fact that he moved around with his family during his childhood and adolescence, never staying put; according to the film, given this lack of stability, he fears failure and that is exactly what he probably faces with this case.
Plotwise, Dark Waters is a by-the-numbers David vs. Goliath story. Haynes and his creative team, however, do inject the film with some stylistic touches in an attempt to set it apart from the rest, whether by having the camera literally pull back and show how Rob literally stands alone against the world, or through Marcelo Zarvos’ unsettling and lugubrious score, Edward Lachmann’s drab blueish fluorescent photography and Affonso Gonçalves effective editing (especially in the scenes where Rob explains to his wife the toxic effects of Teflon or when he first deposes a Dupont executive). Haynes even taps his hat to those classic 1970s paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View by hinting at the effects the case is having on Rob’s state of mind.
There is no doubt that Dark Waters is a passion project for both Ruffalo (who also produced the film) and Haynes. Yes, you will be outraged by the crimes committed by DuPont against the citizens of Parkersburg, West Virginia and you will even understand why the latter turn their backs against those who are suing DuPont on their behalf (after all the company is the town’s lead employer). Even though its tone is not as triumphalist as other films in the genre —the script hints at the apparent futility of these efforts in the larger scheme of things—, it is this very same fatalism that, in the end, sets the film slightly apart.
Which brings me back to The Report, a film that, given the current impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, feels far more urgent. It benefits from its single-minded, laser-sharp focus on Jones’ investigation and its aftermath. The bunker-like office inside the CIA’s headquarters from where Jones and his dwindling team go through thousands of online and paper documents and begin to connect the dots is no different than the rather impersonal offices of Taft Stettinius & Hollister. But by treating the first half of The Report like a police procedural —walls covered in paper and photographs with arrows crossing them and flashbacks to the scene of the crime (the acts of torture against suspected Al Qaeda sympathizers) included— writer/director Burns turns what could have been a dull, dry reading of the facts into riveting drama. The only difference between both films is that whereas Rob in Dark Waters still believes in the judicial process even though the stakes are against him, Jones, in The Report’s second half, embraces his role as a whistleblower once it becomes obvious to him that Congress and the Obama administration are about to sweep his 6,000+ page report under the rug.
Idealism butts heads against pragmatism as Jones leaks to the press an internal CIA report that reached the same conclusions as his report long before Jones started the investigation. Feinstein reminds him of her disdain towards Edward Snowden and whistleblowers in general. And the entire U.S. government goes hard after Jones. In the end, pragmatism wins as a redacted version of the report is released. Even though the action is again limited to a series of behind closed doors meetings, Burns makes us feel that the stakes are much higher in this second half as the noose tightens around Jones and the CIA’s PR machine kicks in full gear after Bin Laden is killed.
Rob Bilott still works for Taft (in fact, the law firm has launched an aggressive publicity campaign on behalf of Dark Waters) and Daniel Jones leads his own investigative consultancy firm (the Penn Quarter Group) while those involved in the CIA torture scandal appear on television as commentators. Dark Waters leaves us, through a series of intertitles, with the knowledge of a long, protracted and victorious fight. The Report leaves us with the image of a lone warrior, walking away from those halls of power he once used to work for, carrying his belongings, not necessarily disappointed, but determined to use this experience, this knowledge, this outrage, on his next quest for the truth. And we are left with the nagging feeling that, though truths were revealed and injustices addressed, that it is all for naught. That history will repeat itself and that those courageous men and women who know something is wrong and want to do something about it will find themselves, like Sisyphus, rolling a huge boulder up the slippery hills of justice.
The Report is currently playing on theaters and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime on November 29. Dark Waters opens theatrically this weekend.