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Dark Waters

For drama, Hollywood often turns to stories “based on” or “inspired by” real events. Some are only tangentially related to the actual events though,   occasionally, such re-creations ring true, wrenching genuine drama from them. Such a one is the eco-legal-thriller, “Dark Waters.” (The film, which opened  November 27th, is rated “PG-13” and runs 126 minutes.)

“Dark Waters” is “based on” a notable 2001 legal case where a determined attorney named Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) uncovered a dark secret linking a number of unexplained deaths caused by a toxic chemical in ground water produced by the DuPont Company.

The case starts small, when Bilott, a corporate attorney in Cincinnati whose firm does work for Dupont, is accosted in his office by a cattle farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), claiming his herd (near Parkersburg, West Virginia) is dying from polluted water on his spread. Reluctantly, Rob visits the fellow’s depressed farm and sees for himself Tennant’s dying cattle. His sympathies stirred, he appeals to his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) to take the case, a delicate one since it involves their own client.

Dupont’s corporate team, led by smooth Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) initially hears out the complaint and sends out representatives to examine the evidence but offers no significant findings on an acid named PFOA (prominently featured in the compound Teflon). Their stonewalling sends Bilott, ever more passionate about the company’s responsibility, to demand “discovery” of the firm’s historic files on the substance.  His request is answered with an avalanche of documents that fills a room. Painstakingly, Bilott attacks the material, undertaking a years-long crusade, finding that the acid causes cancer and other maladies. and risking everything-–his future, his family, and even his own health–to expose the truth.

A legal thriller is hardly what one expects of a veteran director Todd Haynes, a distinctive craftsman whose varied work ranges from provocative character studies (like “Safe” and “Carol”) to  dreamlike period pieces (“Far From Heaven” and “Wonderstruck”). Here, he tackles a ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama done in a richly-textured but straightforward style (photographed exquisitely by long time cinematographer and colleague Edward Lachman) and makes it work. 

“Dark Waters” stands or falls on Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Bilott, and he stands tall. He plays Rob as a modest, rumpled man, content with his wife (Anne Hathaway) and kids in his conventional Cincinnati home, who is then roused by injustice and corporate greed, giving his all to get to the core of his case.

Ruffalo has had a lively and varied career since he was first noticed in “You Can Count on Me” (2000).  In the years since he has earned kudos for films such as  “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Spotlight,” as well as his long-running role as The Hulk in the “Avengers” series. In “Deep Waters,” he dominates the film, not with showiness, but with an ingrained naturalism befitting his diffident character. This is as compelling a personage as he has ever portrayed.

While Ruffalo stands out in “Deep Waters,” he is well seconded by cast members such as Robbins, as his skeptical but ultimately supportive boss, Camp as the gruff but poignant farmer, and Garber as the slick corporate smoothie, among others. “Dark Waters” also run deep.

From left: Annette Bening (as Sen. Diane Feinsten) and Adam Driver (as Daniel Jones) in “The Report.” Photo:Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy Amazon Studios

The Report – DC in the Movies

Washington wonks who follow national security affairs might recall the period, some 10 years ago, when a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigated CIA activities in the “war on terror.”  A massive report on America’s brutal secret war to battle terrorism eventually resulted in key findings that were released by the Committee’s Chairman Senator Diane Feinstein.  Now, that inside-Washington story is the subject of “The Report,” another “based-on” picture transformed into a riveting thriller (the film, which is rated “R” and runs 119 minutes, is now in area theaters and available on Amazon Prime.)

The film introduces us to an idealistic Committee staffer, Daniel J. Jones (the aptly named Adam Driver), who is tasked by his boss, Sen. Feinstein (Annette Bening), to lead an investigation into the CIA’s controversial anti-terrorist detention program, created in the anxious aftermath of the 9/11 attack. That investigation consumes five dogged years, focusing especially on the Agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” questionable practices amounting to torture but sanctified by certain CIA-hired psychologists. If the film has any full-out villains, it is those cocky but clueless psychologists who fill the bill.

Jones assembles a team assigned to a grim CIA facility to learn the truth about these practices, but their progress is thwarted by political resentments, Agency cover-ups and stalls, and destroyed evidence.  Though his team (originally bipartisan) dwindles, Jones continues a relentless pursuit of the truth that eventually leads to the dramatic findings that Feinstein revealed in 2014.

The investigation both addresses the deeds committed by intelligence operatives during the Bush years as well as confronts the caution and concern of the Obama Administration to release such explosive information. Through it all, Jones makes his case to the disquieted but ever skeptical Sen. Feinstein, who wants an iron-clad case to present to the public. The ultimate drama comes down to whether this report of American wrong-doing ever makes it to the Senate floor.

Can you make a pulse-pounding drama out of document-reading, computer scrolling, and staff briefings?  Turns out you can. “The Report”—written and directed by Scott Z. Burns—does it with a cool-looking, briskly-paced story focused laser-like on the resolute Adam Driver, whom we see in overdrive (pun intended) mode throughout most of the picture. Bening captures Feinstein with both an accurate wig and with deliberate, slightly monotonic readings which belie the actress’s normal ebullient self to match the senator’s somber cadence.   

In striking contrast to the film’s pedestrian, bureaucratic settings, the movie also includes horrendous—and hard to watch–flash-backs  (filmed
in noisy, quick cuts in garish light) to give the viewer a dose of what the captives suffered.

In this, Burns’ first feature as a director, there are a string of other solid turns by a talented cast including Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Douglas Hodge, Ted Levine (as CIA Director John Brennan), Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew Rhys, and Corey Stoll,  completing a powerful ensemble that rounds out Driver’s uncompromising performance.

(DC Notes: The film was essentially filmed in New York studios, yet it also did location shooting in Washington, including postcard shots of the Capitol and downtown DC. The finale, though, highlights our city: it shows the triumphant Jones coming down the steps of the Grant Memorial then cuts to him on the Mall with the Washington Monument in view just before the end credits.)

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.  u

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