Rob Bilott has just become a partner in Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a large law firm representing big corporations, when Wilbur Tennant asks for his help.
Tennant is a farmer from Rob’s home town in West Virginia and he wants to sue DuPont, the giant chemical corporation. Tennant says that toxic waste discharged into a stream that runs alongside his property is killing his cows.
Reluctantly accepting the job – after all, he is a corporate lawyer who defends companies accused of polluting — Rob embarks upon a long journey in which he uncovers serious dangers for all the people of Parkersburg. He also puts his marriage and his own mental health at risk.
In the tradition of American legal thrillers (one of the most successful, Spotlight, also starred Mark Ruffalo) this film by Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Carol) tells a story which stretches over ten years without losing the viewer’s interest. Much of this is due to the skill of Mark Ruffalo, (also a producer of the film), who plays Bilott. He gives his character a tormented humanity and uprightness that directs him through a legal system that silences the weak and helps the strong.
Rob Bilott is a talented lawyer (we meet him just as he is accepted as a partner), but also a family man, attentive to his wife and newborn son. He is also very clearly motivated by his Christian faith. It is no coincidence that his decision to accept Wilbur Tennant’s cause (at a very inconvenient moment) flows from a desire to help others in difficulty, whatever the cost.
The film is based on a real story. DuPont was the manufacturer of Teflon, a product which became ubiquitous in non-stick kitchenware. A principal ingredient was perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). As early as the 1960s DuPont chemists realised that PFOA might be causing cancer in animals and humans. Women working in the DuPont plant had babies with birth defects. Worse, PFOA never leaves the body but slowly accumulates over time. And this was the gunk that DuPont was dumping upriver from Tennant’s farm.
DuPont, of course, was not happy with Rob’s investigation – nor was his employer. He soldiered on at great personal cost: years of frustration, pay cuts, and intimidation. His family pays too, as his wife reminds him at one point. He becomes totally absorbed by the epic legal battle.
Yet there is never a moment when Rob thinks of abandoning the case. Justice is not an abstraction for him – it is the faces of the people of the town where he was born.
Around Rob move memorable characters played by fine actors: Bill Camp as Tennant; Tim Robbins as Rob’s tough but upright boss; and especially Anne Hathaway as Rob’s supportive wife Sarah. Their marriage and family life are put under stress, but they survive thanks to their faith.
For fans of legal thrillers, there is no lack of turning points, intuitions, defeats and victories. As the director, Haynes skilfully builds up Rob’s growing sense of paranoia over DuPont’s attempts to stymie his investigation and resentment in Parkerburg at criticising a local employer. There’s plenty to rage about – for 40 years 70,000 residents were poisoned by an iconic American company. In the end Rob succeeds – the credits relate that DuPont eventually settled his class-action suit for US$671 million in 2017.
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Pullman.
Running time: 126 minutes.
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Luisa Cotta Ramosino is an Italian television writer and creative producer; she is also a regular contributor to the website Sentieri del cinema and Scegliere un film, an annual collection of film reviews.