Erin Brockovich is a melodrama depicting an actual person who investigated and exposed a long-running instance of corporate malfeasance that adversely affected herself and her neighbors. It is directed by Steven Soderbergh, whose sex, lies & videotape (1989) and Kafka (1991) once provided hope for his talent. It’s a curiously flat film that casts its material in the uplifting mold of a spirited individual bucking a bad corporation. Although such films routinely claim some degree of merit for addressing real (and hidden) dangers foisted by large companies on ordinary people, this film disappoints in the extreme.
The actual incident on which the film is based occurred in Hinkley, California, a small town in the Mojave Desert. For many years, the routine operation of PG&E—Pacific Gas & Electric—leaked into area drinking water hexavalent chromium, which is highly toxic. In order to protect its profits, the multi-billion dollar utility company lied, denying the pollution it was causing, and creating the illusion that there was no causal connection between their practices and the severe illness that area residents were suffering. PG&E promoted itself, instead, as a model of corporate responsibility and compassion in the community by underwriting medical attention to these individuals, the sole purpose of which was to misinform them and their neighbors. Enter Erin Brockovich, one of the afflicted area residents and the mother of three, who works with a law firm to bring the miscreants to court. The eventual discovery of internal company documents that map out the utility’s policy of deceit leads to a bench verdict against PG&E of $333 million. All’s well that ends with a potful of money.
David-and-Goliath stories are worthwhile insofar as they remind us of the possibility of individual and group activism, which has the potential to prevail even against large and powerful entities. There is certainly no disputing this. However, there are three necessary ingredients to keep such a film from collapsing into cynical and spurious uplift. One, it needs to be compassionate, which requires giving victims (and their suffering) their due and not allowing them and their plight to be lost as the focus shifts to some local hero or heroine taking on the corporate villain. Two, it needs to evidence anger, that is, some degree of outrage at the victimization, if only to encourage citizen activism rather than leaving it “on the screen.” Finally, such a film needs to be sufficiently analytical to suggest that the corporate villain, far from being a deviant, is in fact representative of profit-obsessed corporations—the tip of the iceberg, as it were. There has to be some sense that the evil of the company’s practices derives from corporate culture and its profit motive. Without this element, once the film is done, the problem, implicitly an aberration, seems to be solved. It would be false, for example, for Soderbergh’s film to leave its audience with the feeling that Erin Brockovich has “saved the day.”
Soderbergh’s film, based on Susannah Grant’s script, fails on all three counts. It isn’t about the victims, whose medical woes are given short shrift in order to keep the atmosphere upbeat. The figure of Brockovich takes over, and her very occasional cough is ludicrously insufficient to establish her as any sort of representative of human suffering. Soderbergh shows no compassion past the early part of the film; he becomes, instead, completely caught up in the mystique of Brockovich. I hesitate to say what I’m about to, because it’s very harsh; but by focusing on Brockovich at the expense of providing a powerful canvas of the human suffering that PG&E’s practices caused, and in this sense distracting us from this suffering, Soderbergh may be accused of doing the same thing artistically that the utility did corporately. Moreover, his film is too mild, too eager to please a relaxed audience, to generate any sense of outrage at the utility’s practices. Rather than this outrage, there is a sense that the legal system, once humanized by someone like Erin Brockovich, who professes to dislike lawyers, easily prevails against the corporate villain; there is a sense, that is, of vindication of “the system.” After all, PG&E has a very steep financial judgment assessed against it; so what’s the problem? This is like dismissing the humane claim of Rodney King’s brutalization by the police because the city of Los Angeles ended up paying him a good deal of money. One thing doesn’t balance out the other; a financial reward is compensation, which of course means that something is being compensated for. Bad health, not to mention the more elusive loss of a sense of security: a financial judgment cannot set such matters right. Far better it would be if companies didn’t behave as they do, which brings us to the final failure of Soderbergh’s film: the omission of an analytical context (beyond a passing reference to Love Canal) relating PG&E’s behavior vis-à-vis the community to the standard practices of such companies vis-à-vis communities throughout the United States. Soderbergh allows this point to get lost in the desert.
There is something dispiriting in everything’s coming down to money at the end of this film. The victims each (it is sketchily implied) get their share of the judgment, and Brockovich gets a $2 million bonus for her extra-legal work. In retrospect, the pollution, the suffering that resulted, all of that seems mere plot set-up for Erin Brockovich’s triumphant victory. Inadvertently, this has the effect of implying that PG&E’s inhuman behavior is a good thing for setting the stage for so happy a conclusion.
The focus on Brockovich raises another distracting because irrelevant issue, on which Soderbergh’s camera nevertheless dotes: Brockovich’s cleavage. The real Brockovich is fond of dressing so that her breasts are foremost (or two-most) in evidence. The actress who plays her here, Julia Roberts, is less fulsomely endowed than the actual Brockovich, so her breasts have been pushed up to provide an illusion of voluptuousness. Brockovich is “good people,” the film insists, implying that you can’t, or shouldn’t, judge a book by its cover—or a woman by her blouse. Here we have, the film wants us to believe, Brockovich’s simple self-expression; and doesn’t one have the right to dress as one wants? (Certainly—although one can argue that business-place dress codes aren’t pointless exercises in tyranny.) This, however, is unrelated to any substantive issue. Having bypassed the opportunity to be realistic about the medical suffering of victims and about the standard practices of big business, for some bizarre reason Soderbergh & Company have chosen this detail—how Erin Brockovich dresses—for the application of “realism”! This is the last word on trivializing a serious topic.
Roberts won an Oscar for her star performance. The female Denzel Washington, Roberts is a pretty blank, a wide though empty smile, a dead-heart and a dead-head. She brings nothing to the role of Erin Brockovich except her own arrogance, and not a little, I suspect, of Brockovich’s. In playing the head of the law firm with which Brockovich joins forces, on the other hand, Albert Finney brings the unexpected quality of a pixie to what otherwise would be a clichéd role. His good acting is the principal reason for seeing Soderbergh’s flat, lazy film.
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