Water Rackets: “Erin Brockovich”

Erin Brockovich must win people over—and if we don’t like Erin, that’s our problem.
Michael Pattison

Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brokovich (2000) is playing July 17 - August 16, 2016 on MUBI in the United Kingdom. 

Erin Brockovich is perhaps the most forceful articulation of Soderbergh’s proclivity toward emphasizing character over other filmic concerns. Without sacrificing their causal role within the narrative, who characters are is often of greater interest than what they do—indeed, what they will do and accomplish is often a foregone conclusion… while Erin Brockovich may, thematically, be a film about responsibility, formally, Erin Brockovich is a movie about Erin Brockovich—and decidedly so.”

— Andrew Patrick Nelson, in The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh

“I’m smart, I’m hardworking and I’m not leaving here without a job.”

— Erin, Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich must win people over. As a single mother of three who wears short skirts and low-cut tops, she’s at the more preyed-upon end of a predatory spectrum—one whose social logic is built on first impressions. Just after she fails her latest job interview (a beaming smile and verbal assurances of charm only go so far), she’s broadsided by a Jaguar at the corner of Magnolia and Lankershim in North Hollywood. In court, earrings dangling over foam neck brace, she is subjected to ad hominem reasoning by the other driver’s attorney, with dubiously dupable jurors looking on: “An ER doctor, who spends his days saving lives, was the one out of control?” Untrained in matters of cunning, Erin responds accordingly: “That asshole smashed in my fucking neck.”

Talk about cunning: in a natural match of form to content, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000) must also win people over. This is a film, based on actual events, whose dramatic crux involves a legal case against a giant corporation, and the boring, practical groundwork that building it entails: perusing records, scanning documents, developing relationships with victim-clients. In 1993, Erin Brockovich (played here by Julia Roberts), a clerk at the small Reseda-based law firm Masry & Vititoe, began to investigate an anomalously high count of acute illnesses and diseases among the residents of Hinkley, California, and uncovered their connection to a nearby compressor plant owned by Pacific Gas & Electric—which, between 1952 and 1966, had been contaminating the local groundwater supplies by dumping hexavalent chromium into its unlined holding ponds.

The subsequent litigation resulted in the largest settlement in a direct-action lawsuit in US history. Such processes can prove tricky turf for filmmakers, who must find ways to encapsulate the nitty-gritty details in a cinematically fulfilling manner. Narrative momentum is key: one has to keep things moving. To this end, Erin Brockovich is two hours and ten minutes long, but it never feels it. In the classic storytelling sense, this is a film of remarkable economy. As the opening credits unfold, note just how quickly text and subtext are conveyed. Trafficking his star’s persona into a working-class milieu—from Notting Hill to Ventura, CA—Soderbergh frames Roberts in profile as she smokes, her name appearing onscreen, before the camera tilts down to her feet, its movement primed by the dropped cigarette, which she stubs out with one of her heeled shoes. As she does so, her eponymous character’s name appears. It’s “Julia Roberts” and then it’s “ERIN BROCKOVICH” but it could easily be the other way around.

Foreshadowing the punitive contexts in which a faceless system beats on the little man, Erin finds she’s received a parking ticket, and breaks a fingernail getting into her car: “Goddamnit!” In the background, spot the façade of Environmental Solar Design Inc., an actual location rather than a constructed backdrop, but which for keener eyes doubles here as an appropriate choice for a film all about the side-effects of a more sinister environmentalism. These are canny gambits, establishing a number of things all at once. Chiefly, we get Roberts, in sleeveless denim jacket and sunglasses, playing Brockovich: a heart-on-her-sleeve type who’s as quick to curse a parking ticket as she is to cut down an employer when he suggests her attire isn’t quite suitable for the workplace.

Such economy is down to Susannah Grant as much as anything. Hers is an old-fashioned script, which dilutes any dramatic complications into a streamlined trajectory, whose vibrant engine is repeatedly (and repeatedly) Roberts. If we don’t like Erin, that’s our problem. Anne V. Coates (still with us at 90), who won an Academy Award for Lawrence of Arabia in 1963 and who’d worked with Soderbergh on Out of Sight (1998), edits the montage sequences that further establish Brockovich’s character with unfussy precision. “I don’t have a resumé,” Erin tells one potential employer as she makes her way through the LA Times jobs section. We cut to another conversation: “I don’t have any computer skills.” Later, a similar technique is used when Erin visits UCLA, asking her toxicology expert a question that he answers in (cut to) a different location on campus. Visually, Soderbergh highlights the bare necessities of dense legal matters through typeface close-ups: in one such sequence, “cleanup and abatement order,” “hexavalent chromium,” “contamination” and “one mile north” clue us in on the dramatic stakes of pollution, proximity and deceit.

In compressing such judicial proceedings into one digestible story, Erin Brockovich achieves its seemingly necessary sleight of hand, lensing the lawsuit through its protagonist’s triumph-over-adversity arc. In assisting a whole community of ordinary people, Erin carves out the foundations for her own career—down to the closing text that debriefs us with regard to the real-life Brockovich’s continued progress. As Erin receives a $2 million bonus for her efforts, one of PG&E’s victims must come to terms with having brain cancer—which no compensation can annul. Andrew Patrick Nelson, in an essay for The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh, writes: “As film scholar David Bordwell puts it, ‘The classical film makes history unknowable apart from its effects upon individual characters.’ Victory for one is victory for all.”

This payoff is on emotive terms—as that of any film hoping to reach a wide audience perhaps ought to be. The built-in problem with justice-crusade films, including Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) and this year’s Best Picture winner Spotlight, is that events unfold through the eyes of the intervening savior. So long as the fundamental tenets of the system are second in priority to individual case studies, these films will forever busy themselves with pitting good capitalism against bad capitalism. Investing in its heroine to the degree that it does, Erin Brockovich risks exceptionalizing its story, overlooking some crucial truths about the banal indifference on which profiteering depends. As David Walsh put it when the film was first released: “The implication seems to be that a successful struggle against corporate power in the US today requires some sort of miraculous intervention. I suppose there’s more than a grain of truth in that.”

But there are less emotive payoffs too. The film is funny, sharp, smart, accessible; framing difficult struggles through easy means isn’t something necessarily to be scoffed at. There’s also something immediately refreshing, and intriguing, in the way Grant’s script flips the gender codes by which films of this kind ordinarily operate: Aaron Eckhart, as Erin’s neighbor-cum-love interest George, is called upon to deliver the kind of me-or-your-work ultimatum normally reserved for the nagging female support.

Soderbergh’s Wellesian oscillation between studio products and independent projects—his widely purported “one for them, one for me” rule—means, of course, that even his so-called mainstream films are fascinating experiments, forages into true auteur terrain. Erin Brockovich was the director’s less showy, perhaps less cinematic film of 2000: the other, Traffic, had more style, oomph, machismo—and it won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Roberts won Erin Brockovich its only Academy Award, from five nominations. As the lead character, she conveys one of the film’s central points: that experience is transformative, even radicalizing—and that with leadership and organization, a collective movement built through meaningful chemistries can bring corporate villainy to its knees.

Returning to notions of the overlooked, however, one final note. For fifteen years now I have been of the conviction that Joaquin Phoenix was robbed of the Best Supporting Male at the 2001 Oscars; his rendition of Commodus in Gladiator lost out to Benicio Del Toro in Traffic (tough competition, mind). Watching Erin Brockovich again earlier this week, however, I now realize that I’ve been championing the wrong victim. As Ed Masry, the lawyer who represents Erin at the beginning of the film and who employs her as a clerk soon after, Albert Finney puts in a pitch-perfect performance here.

Often shot so that he constitutes more of the frame than Roberts, Finney demonstrates that truly exhilarating knack of underplaying things so that others get a fairer share of the bargain (Roberts was paid $20 million of the film’s $51 million budget). In doing so, of course, he steals the show—tie loosened, wearing the kind of glasses that distort the eyes and cheeks, and with a mouth perpetually full of air if not words. When he approaches Erin about her sartorial choices (“you may want to rethink your wardrobe a little”), Finney plays it not so much with avuncular condescension as someone who’s not even convinced of the thoughts stumbling from his own grimacing tongue; the would-be tedious sexism is a workplace trap set on others' terms, and Masry is like a wide-eyed boy caught up in its awkward horror. He is piqued and perplexed by his new firecracker clerk.

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