Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters” tells the real-life story of corporate lawyer Rob Bilott, who took on DuPont after discovering the chemical company had been dumping toxic waste into the air and waters near its West Virginia plant.
“I have been a real fan of the whistleblower genre,” says Haynes, whose film stars Mark Ruffalo as Bilott. “These films carry a sense of dread, an existential question, and in a different way these films create an atmosphere of anxiety, fear and unrest; the human component is painful and trying.”
“Dark Waters” and “The Report,” a film that stars Adam Driver as a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer working to uncover the story of the CIA’s use of torture following the 9/11 attacks, are the latest examples of what could be referred to as the David versus Goliath film genre.
These works involve a single person or small, seemingly powerless groups fighting against great odds to uncover the truth about governmental or corporate malfeasance. Some are classic whistleblowers, who report on wrongdoings within their own organizations; others are just concerned citizens who see wrongdoing and take up the fight against it.
Films in this genre can involve a single outcast, as in “Serpico,” in which the title character fights corruption in the New York Police Department; or a tiny group, like “Erin Brockovich,” in which a small law firm motivated by the title character fights a corporation’s environmental sins; and others are works in which some determined individuals, backed by some sort of institution, go after the really big guys, as in “All the President’s Men.”
The genre seems to stretch at least as far back as 1939, when Jimmy Stewart played a freshman U.S. senator fighting his home state’s corrupt political machine in director Frank Capra’s classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But most of these films which, unlike “Mr. Smith,” are based on real-life incidents, emerged during and after the Vietnam War/Watergate era, when faith in America’s institutions took a sharp nosedive, from which it arguably has yet to recover.
“Because the Vietnam War is something we have been left with pain and ambivalence about, it begins a loss of innocence in the American experience, and that is reflected in the films that followed it,” says Scott Z. Burns, writer-director of “The Report.” “And you had Watergate, this loss of innocence about our government, and the civil rights movement was a really difficult look in the mirror.”
“In the past 20, 30, 40 years, it’s possible people are feeling more disenfranchised than they did before,” adds Michael Taylor, a professor of film and television production at USC. “There was a time when people were less disgruntled, and it’s possible out of that feeling grows a dissatisfaction and frustration that creates a demand for these kinds of movies.”
That frustration is seen in the protagonists of these films, many of whom fight for justice but are so obsessed it can affect their careers and family life. It can also render them particularly unlikable. Like Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco industry whistleblower played by Russell Crowe in director Michael Mann’s Oscar-nominated 1999 film, “The Insider.”
“What motivated me” to make the film, says Mann, “was Jeffrey Wigand was flawed. He was a difficult person to get along with. I wasn’t interested in a story that resolved in an easy way, I was interested in the fallible humanity. It made you focus on the actions he takes, and that’s the imperative.”
“I don’t know if liking these people is the point,” adds Haynes. “These people are not conventional heroes, and I don’t think we want to be pandered to.”
David versus Goliath movies also seem to be peculiarly American, a function of a cultural and political system that not only allows the little guy to fight back against corruption, but cheers on his or her efforts, no matter how difficult the struggle. And in some cases this is codified into law, particularly in the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects federal employees who report violations of federal directives.
“I don’t think [other countries] have political systems that invite it,” says Mann. “We have a Constitution that advances balance of power. It’s one thing for Politkovskaya to come out against the system,” he says of Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading Russian journalist who was killed for her efforts, “but there is no legislative function for it; there is in America, where people can speak truth to power. Whistleblowing is kind of institutionalized in the U.S., but not in other countries.”
Adds Burns: “If you see something wrong, this is a system that still wants to proceed toward justice. There is something unique to the American experience, the story that it’s the right thing to do. I think we want to see these stories. In the actions of these people who stand up, there is hope and inspiration.”