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One of the most compelling and certainly frequently visited subgenre of biopic is that of the whistleblower movie. As we’ve seen in classics like All The President’s Men, Silkwood, and most recently in director Todd Haynes’ film Dark Waters, stories of exposing the truth in the name of the public good make for good cinema when possessing the right ingredients.
During the recent press day for his film, I asked Todd Haynes on behalf of CinemaBlend what it was that he felt were the hallmarks of good whistleblowing movies. He responded with the following rundown:
You watch almost always unlikely people, sort of through circumstances, confront [a] narrative that it is almost on their own fragile shoulders to disclose, and investigate and expand, and seek through the discovery process and then try to figure out something to do about it.
In the case of Dark Waters, the fragile shoulders we see uncovering the truth are those of corporate defense attorney Rob Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo. Bilott’s true life crusade against the chemical company DuPont is the focus of Todd Haynes’ film, as we see Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bilott doing the legwork to uncover decades of supposed corporate malfeasance.
As a result, we’re also treated to Rob Bilott’s 20-year process of research, follow-ups and eventually legal proceedings that are still going on to this very day. But for as much due diligence that is shown in Dark Waters’ grounded world of procedural law, we also get to see the very human toll that the case took on not only Mark Ruffalo’s protagonist, but also the communities that were connected to the case.
Consequences such as those come from the very real and pretty much assured consequence of taking on a company like Rob Bilott did in the true story that inspired Dark Waters. When I asked Todd Haynes about what he feels makes for a good whistleblower movie, especially when it comes to his own product, he also included the following complications that apply to the genre almost universally:
Invariably, power pushes back, and [whistleblowers] lives become imperiled, and their families, and their relationships to their communities become isolated. And you see all of that in Dark Waters, in the case that Rob Bilott takes on against DuPont.
Audiences undoubtedly see this take form in the trailer for Dark Waters, as the condensed version of the film’s pitch ends with Mark Ruffalo running through a parking garage, fearful that if he turns on his car, he could be eliminated. While that’s the more cinematic way of expressing the tightening knots that present themselves in a whistleblower’s quest, the more grounded consequences are just as harrowing.
Throughout every phase of Rob Bilott’s crusade for the truth in Dark Waters, we see him become more of a pariah with each subsequent question he asks. His once trusted sources don’t return phone calls, the West Virginia community he came from starts to shun Wilbur Tennant, the farmer who came to him with the very first complaint against DuPont, and eventually Rob Bilott himself starts to freak out about just how far reaching the conspiracy he’s investigating turns out to be.
In those actions, we see Mark Ruffalo deliver yet another powerful performance in this film genre, as previously he’d lent his talents to films like David Fincher’s Zodiac and Tom McCarthy’s Best Picture winning expose Spotlight. Seeing as Ruffalo’s no stranger to this sort of undertaking, he was obviously the perfect choice to play Rob Bilott in Dark Waters.
But what made him, as well as co-star Tim Robbins and director Todd Haynes, perfect candidates to bring this story to life is the fact that all three of them are passionate for what the film had to offer to the public. With backgrounds in activism, Mark Ruffalo and Robbins were shoo-ins, but with Haynes, his love for this genre was the key to leading him into taking his first non-fiction based narrative project.
You can see him display that passion, as he speaks in the video from our interview below:
In climates of political turmoil, films like Dark Waters are especially powerful, as they show the true efforts of people like Rob Bilott who uncovered a heinous wrong, and risked their lives to right it. But even removed from the times that they have been crafted in, those films entertain and inform future generations, and possibly even future whistleblowers.
Which leads to the final question I had not only for Todd Haynes, but also to Tim Robbins, Mark Ruffalo and Rob Bilott when I spoke to each of them at that Dark Waters press junket: could this movie make it easier for future whistleblowers to come forward? As you might expect, everyone, including Haynes himself, said that they certainly hope that it will. If anything, that's ultimately a big part of the moral this particular film is trying to display for its potential audience. As shown, whistleblowing is dangerous and difficult, but it's ultimately worth the time because it makes things easier for those who follow in the footsteps of such actions.
As long as there are whistleblowers in the world who are read to report the facts and fight for the justice they seek, there will always be films like Dark Waters that tell their stories. Which is probably a good thing if you ask Todd Haynes, as he’s not only a fan of the genre, but he’s also brought his talents to a worthy entry in that particular canon. Let’s hope that if he finds another true story that he takes a shining to, he doesn’t hesitate to jump on board and spin another tale of speaking truth to power.