Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Film Review: Erin Brockovich

"Erin Brockovich"
**** (out of ****)

The Trump administration moved Tuesday to roll back an Obama administration policy that protected more than half the nation's streams from pollution.
Associated Press - June 27, 2017

The State of Michigan sued Flint Wednesday, alleging that the City Council's refusal to approve a broadly backed deal to buy water over the long term from a Detriot-area system is endangering public health.
Associated Press - printed in the Boston Globe June 28, 2017

Reading about these two news stories, I immediately thought of Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" (2000), a movie I originally called one of the best films of 2000, and one that unfortunately proves relevant today.

The movie was based on the true story of the legal case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993 California. The company was accused of contaminating the drinking water of the town Hinkley with hexavalent chromium, which studies showed was linked to cancer in humans. PG&E used this chromium in their cooling tower system to fight corrosion.

Pacific Gas and Electric however was fully aware of the harmful nature of their actions. In their attempt to cover their tracks the company made proposals to buy homes within a radius of the plant. What was initially a pro-bono real estate case morphed into a larger issue, thanks to the keen eye of Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts), a filing clerk at the law office of Masry & Vititoe, who had no degree in law.

Essentially what you have in "Erin Brockovich" is a Frank Capra-esque story of the little guy (or girl) taking on the mighty large corporation, seeking justice, offering the message that against all the odds good will always prevail when the truth is on your side. Of course, it helps if you look like Julia Roberts as well.

"Erin Brockovich" isn't so much about the court case as it is about people. The viewer understands the basis of the case but we don't see a lot of lawyers talking about strategy or court room scenes. The majority of the movie focuses on Erin and her interaction with people. "Erin Brockovich" wants the audience to like Erin. To relate to her and cheer her on. We are meant to admire her.

In this respect Julia Roberts succeeds in her interpretation of the character. Ms. Roberts' charm saves the day as she delivers, what seems to be, an effortless performance. Where does Erin Brockovich begin and Julia Roberts end? In some ways Ms. Roberts is not doing much different than she has done in other roles. Her public persona, with her winning smile, are on-screen here. She is light and bubbly. That makes "Erin Brockovich" light and bubbly. You could have taken this movie and material in a more dramatic direction, imagine Meryl Streep in the role. But how many people would have seen the movie? Ms. Roberts makes "Erin Brockovich" mainstream and is directly linked to why the movie was a box-office success. It is great Hollywood entertainment. Minus a few short skirts and four letter words this is a movie Hollywood of the past would have made.

However there were many that criticized "Erin Brockovich" and Julia Roberts' wardrobe as distracting. These "movie critics" wrote a lot of words commenting on how Ms. Roberts' breast were far too often on display and seemed to be the focal point of many scenes. That is not fair and completely dismissing what the movie is trying to accomplish. I am a male and enjoyed the story presented in "Erin Brockovich". If other men watching the movie find Ms. Roberts' appearance a distraction, that says more about them then the movie.

If there is to be criticism aimed at the movie it would be the way an unnecessary love interest character, George (Aaron Eckhart) a next door neighbor biker, is portrayed. Whether or not the real Erin Brockovich knew this man is immaterial to me. Story-wise the character adds nothing to the plot. What starts off as a good character, fizzles out. If the purpose of the George character was to show Erin's determination in her noble pursuit, a perfectly good character was wasted. As a result the character becomes an after thought used as a baby sitter allowing Erin to focus on the legal case. The George character could have been used to reveal personality traits in Erin's character while still turning George into a person instead of a plot device.

Some of the better scenes in the movie involve Erin with Ed Masry (Albert Finney), the attorney she works for. They have a good chemistry between them and are able to exchange witty remarks at one another. Development wise, the Ed character doesn't fare much better than the George character, however being the actor Mr. Finney is, with his own charm and screen presence, he makes the character memorable. He was nominated for an Academy Award in the best supporting actor category.

Also, in true Capra form, it would have been nice if there was a screen villain, someone from PG&E fighting back against Erin and Ed. Instead it is a faceless company. Was that within itself a social comment? Companies prefer to remain faceless as they cause suffering to the general public. Is that how they get away with it? It might be a good idea but in the movies it is always good to have a villain.

But, we have to come back to Ms. Roberts, who won an Academy Award in the best actress category for her performance. It cannot be overstated. Ms. Roberts is the central force in the movie. The entire movie is built around her. The great critic, Michael Wilmington, then of the Chicago Tribune, wrote of Ms. Roberts, she "may never find another part as perfect for her". Sadly this has turned out to be true as Ms. Roberts, with the possible exception of Mike Nichols' "Closer" (2004), has not starred in a movie worthy of her acting skill. Winning the Academy Award turned out to be one of the worst things for her a career. A similar fate shared by Halle Berry and Mira Sorvino.

Director Steven Soderbergh, who prior to this movie had a reputation as an American indie filmmaker with title such as "Sex, Lies and Videotape" (1989) a Palme d'Or winner and "Kafka" (1991) came into the mainstream with this movie. The year 2000 proved to be his year as he released another critically acclaimed drama, "Traffic" (2000), for which he won the best director Academy Award (while also being nominated for "Erin Brockovich"). Since this time Mr. Soderbergh has switched between Hollywood movies (the Ocean series) and personal projects.

As the news of the day reminds us, the events in "Erin Brockovich" were not a "one time" scenario. In fact PG&E, as late as 2011, was still addressing contamination concerns. Lead contamination has been discovered in Ohio and Illinois not to mention the horrific situation in Flint. The news media doesn't give these issues enough attention. That remains one of the great things about movies however. "Erin Brockovich" gives us names and faces. Movies, sometimes, bring important issues to the mainstream. They create awareness. We need more movies like "Erin Brockovich". All these years later the movie has lost none of its bite and Ms. Roberts' still shines.