Groundwater Is Back on the Big Screen

By Thad Plumley

Groundwater rarely takes center stage and is seen on the big screens of major motion pictures. When it does occasionally grab the spotlight, the storyline almost always involves a law professional with a no-quit attitude battling an evil corporation with little regard for the people
whose water it is poisoning.

See A Civil Action in 1998, Erin Brockovich in 2000, and most recently, Dark Waters, which came out last December.

All three have eerily similar plots. Yet, while Hollywood seems to be out of ideas—do we really need another superhero caper or 1980s reboot—these movies can’t be accused of following a tired cliché. All three sadly are based on true stories.

All are also extremely well done, and I recommend them for your viewing if you have not seen them. A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich netted multiple Oscar nominations when they were released, with Julia Roberts taking home the best actress prize in 2001 for her unforgettable performance as the title character in Erin Brockovich.

Dark Waters is a worthy companion to the two older films. Attorney Robert Bilott’s pursuit of justice took nearly 20 years, and Mark Ruffalo looks completely spent in his portrayal of Bilott as the film winds down. The frustration shows in his eyes and can be heard in his voice in the closing key moments. Ruffalo really does anguished everyman better than any actor today.

Refreshingly, the film is accurate by Hollywood standards with scriptwriters adding just a few things here and there. It doesn’t seem stress drove Bilott to the bottle as depicted in the film, but can you name a Hollywood protagonist that hasn’t leaned over a bar before the credits roll?

What is perhaps most incredible is how much of the movie seems to be spot-on. Bilott published a book last year, Exposure: Poisoned Waters, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont, that is hard to put down. I urge you to read it. As any book can, it goes much deeper into the story which is an amazing one.

Seeing the movie and then reading the book will most certainly have you repeating an action I did on occasion: You’ll stop, set the book on your lap, and say, “Holy smoke, that part was real!”

So, while groundwater has been seen on the silver screen in yet another legal drama, it would be nice to see it grab a lead role in a different style of film someday.

I wonder if it would have worked to have Cliff Booth, the incredible character played by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, become a water well contractor after retiring from his job as a stuntman?

Yeah, probably not. Let’s stick with what we’ve got. Everyone loves a good thriller.


Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at tplumley@ngwa.org, or (614) 898-7791, ext. 1594.