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REVIEW: ‘Dark Waters’ challenges our beliefs on business, the environment

Robert Bilott is a smart and hard-working corporate defense attorney who represents some of the nation’s most powerful chemical companies.

He opposes red tape and regulation. He sides with the big businesses. And when the chemical companies throw a party, he rubs shoulders with the execs.

But then a family friend—a West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant—pays him a visit. Bilott claims the nearby DuPont factory is pouring deadly chemicals into the streams and killing his cows—190 so far. Tennant wants to hire a local attorney, but no one will accept his case. They’re afraid to take on the town’s largest employer.

Bilott begrudgingly agrees to help—believing DuPont’s own records will clear the company—yet is shocked at what he discovers. The company, he says, has been hiding data from the public and its workers about the dangers of a chemical used to make Teflon pans. Even worse: This chemical, known as C-8 (or PFOA), could be the cause of countless cases of cancer not just in cows but in humans—as well as fetal deformities (babies born with only one nostril) and deaths.

“DuPont knew everything,” he tells his wife. “They knew that the C-8 they put into the air, buried in the ground for decades was causing cancers… They did nothing.”

Bilott wants to take DuPont to court. Will he succeed?

The drama Dark Waters (PG-13) expands nationwide this weekend, starring Mark Ruffalo (Hulk in the Marvel films) as Bilott; Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) as his wife, Sarah; and Bill Camp (12 Years a Slave) as Tennant.

It is based on a true story, as well as on the 2016 New York Times Magazine feature “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” DuPont settled the case with Tennant. But Bilott then filed a class-action lawsuit that resulted in a $670 million settlement with 3,550 residents. C-8— which DuPont stopped using—was linked to six illnesses, including two types of cancer.

Dark Waters is a gripping (and somewhat coarse) legal drama with real-world implications. It raises worldview issues while challenging knee-jerk reactions in the political realm. It also shows how one man can change society for the better.

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

(Scale key: none, minimal, moderate, extreme)

Violence/Disturbing

Minimal. A cow that had gone mad due to ingesting chemicals is shot and killed off-camera.

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

Minimal/moderate. The film’s opening moments includes a skinny-dipping scene at night, briefly shows us two backsides in the dim moonlight. Officials quickly chase the man and woman off. The scene’s intent is to show us the danger of the chemicals—swimming in the water is dangerous, after all—but could have been just as effective with swimsuits.

Coarse Language

Moderate: H-ll (8), misuse of “Jesus” (8), d–n (4), GD (3), a– (3), misuse of “God” (3), f-word (2), SOB (2), OMG (1), s–t (1).

Other Positive Elements

We see Tennant attend church, and then Bilott and his family in church, too. Bilott’s wife prays over the family dinner. When Bilott grows discouraged about Tennant’s case, his wife says, “You did the Christian thing. You helped him.”

Life Lessons

Standing for what’s right has a cost: Tennant and Bilott each were ostracized by their communities. Additionally, Bilott experienced health problems due to stress.

One man can make a difference: In this case, two people—Tennant and Bilott—sparked the case that led to major change.

Change isn’t easy: The film shows Bilott combing through thousands of DuPont documents, searching for the truth.

Worldview/Application

Scripture teaches that humans have dominion over the Earth (Gen. 1:26-28; Ps. 8:6-8) and are to be responsible caretakers. The Hebrew people, after all, were commanded to be good stewards of the land (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7). The same principle applies to us.

Still, few issues within Christianity today are as controversial as environmentalism. Too often, our politics drives our theology.

Perhaps Dark Waters gives us a chance for common ground. Can we agree that deadly chemicals should not be released into the air and water? Can we agree that the public deserves drinking water that is clean? Can we agree that workers shouldn’t be forked to choose between unemployment and a job that might give them cancer? Can we agree that companies shouldn’t risk the public’s safety in order to make a profit?

Dark Waters challenges our beliefs about government regulation. Self-regulation works perfectly in a society without sin. Unfortunately, that’s not our world. In our world, executives sometimes make decisions driven by the bottom line and not the public good. Sometimes, those decisions poison the water and risk cancer.

Yet even then, both the company and the EPA can have faults. In Dark Waters, change occurred only because of the tireless work of one man.

Final Verdict

Dark Waters, like any other movie based on real events, leaves us wondering: Is that how it really happened? A simple Google search, though, underscores the movie’s core facts.

It’s a gripping movie, even if it has too much language to place it in the kid-friendly realm.

Discussion Questions

1. Should the government have a role in environmental regulation? Explain your answer.

2. What is a biblical view of environmentalism?

3. Does either political party have the correct view of business? Of environmentalism?

Entertainment rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language.

PHOTO CREDIT: Focus Features

Author: Michael Foust

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and entertainment more than 15 years. He is the husband of a wife, Julie, and the father of four small children.

View more articles by Michael Foust.

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