This is the second time I reviewed this movie. I believe the first time I said something like, “This movie has two things going for it, and Roberts has them.” Julia Roberts, of course, was playing the title role in Erin Brockovich.
The movie came out in 2000 from Jersey Films, distributed by Universal Pictures. Director was Steven Soderbergh. The three co-producers include Danny DeVito. I obtained a DVD, and screen shots are from the disk. Technical details are from Wikipedia.
This is based on a true events involving the title character. It’s about a single mother with tremendous assets, none of which include life skills and basic tact. The opening shows Erin Brockovich completely blowing a job interview. She has no experience related to the position and has no skills at projecting herself favorably. Two failed marriages signal something is wrong with her life choices.
Immediately following the interview Erin is involved in a traffic accident. The video clearly shows the light is green when she drives into the intersection before her car is struck by another traveling at a high rate of speed. We see history being made with Erin Brockovich meeting Edward L. Masry (Albert Finney), the lawyer who’s handling her suit against the other driver.
That suit goes nowhere. Taking the stand in the court trial, Erin’s choice of language and rejoinder completely unhinges the jury, which votes against her case. Her next life choice involves George (Aaron Eckhart), a Harley rider and otherwise a really great guy. Despite the two getting in some amazing sack time, viewers know this pairing is going nowhere.
Unable to find a job (absolutely no marketable skills beyond the obvious), Erin barges into the Masry law firm and starts to work unbidden. Masry takes a chance on her and gives her some files to work on. It’s a case he is handing pro bono for some citizens out in the boondocks who are being offered money for their property by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). Erin notices one of the files mentions payment by PG&E for medical expenses. She hooks it out to the unincorporated community of Hinkley to dig further.
Location shots do not show a glut of prosperity in Hinkley, California.
After being fired (a week without checking into the office), Erin finally gets across to her boss that there is a real case going. PG&E sells natural gas. Transporting natural gas by pipeline requires first compressing it to cut down the volume. The company’s stations employ reciprocating piston compressors, which require water for cooling. Hexavalent chromium was introduced into the process to prevent rust. The waste water was pumped into holding ponds. Initially the holding ponds were lined to prevent leakage, but a subsequent economy move eliminated lining of new ponds. The water, contaminated with hexavalent chromium seeped into the Hinkley water supply. People are getting sick in Hinkley. Many illnesses are deadly serious. People have died. Erin produces a comprehensive study that links all this to PG&E. A huge lawsuit emerges.
PG&E responds with its big guns. Lawyers from PG&E drop by to intimidate the lowly Masry law firm. Ed Masry responds by bringing two of his office staff, dressed up as lawyers, to the meeting. He also brings Erin. Erin unleashes her lack of charm and reads the big firm lawyers the riot act. The iconic moment of the movie comes when Erin reminds them they are being served water from the Hinkley supply. A big firm lawyer gingerly puts down her glass and never takes a drink. Victory is in the air.
Not quite. Ed Masry teams with a front tier firm, a move that almost proves disastrous. Their lawyers are too professional and are stiff beyond all reason. They turn off the 634 plaintiffs, who begin to shop around for another lawyer. A cute moment comes when the woman lawyer being assigned the case challenges Erin’s capabilities. Erin responds by citing from memory the complete details of one of the 634 picked at random. Asked how she managed to corral all the signatures committing 634 plaintiffs to commit to Masry and his new partner, Erin responds that it was not easy giving that many blow jobs.
The case lacks an essential detail. There is no smoking gun. There is no hard evidence that PG&E had culpable knowledge of wrongdoing. Erin is down to her last straw. She is collecting about the last needed signature from a plaintiff who runs a coffee shop. When a customer in the shop sidles up next to her and starts making personal talk Erin is immediately apprehensive. She has already received one threatening phone call. She has been propositioned countless more times. Then the man drops a bombshell. He worked for PG&E, and he was given the job of shredding documents. He failed to do his job properly. He kept copies of incriminating memos.
The game is over. History shows that PG&E paid $333 million, the largest civil action suit at the time. We see Erin taking George, now estranged, to the home of a Hinkley woman and telling her that her part of the award will be $3 million.
Back at the office, now occupying a suite way up in a high rise, Ed Masry knows how Erin will react when he has to tell her that her bonus check will not be what they agreed upon. We see the classic Erin Brockovich comeback, things you would not want your grandchildren to hear. Then she looks at the check. Ed has seen fit to increase the agreed amount. Erin is getting $2 million.
What’s wrong with this movie is that the premise is false. The people of Hinkley did get sick, but not to the degree that others outside the contaminated zone did. Hexavalent chromium is carcinogenic when inhaled. Drinking water contaminated with hexavalent chromium, in the amounts present in Hinkley water, does not present the same danger. PG&E, like many offenders in these situations, incriminated themselves. They incriminated themselves by acting criminally instead of coming clean in the beginning. By saving money not sealing the holding ponds they dug their own grave. In seeking to stave off future lawsuits by delaying action until time limits ran out, they exposed themselves as unconcerned with people who may have been injured. By destroying evidence they knew would be needed in a lawsuit, they acted as any Mafia family enterprise would.
Erin Brockovich is still around. I see her on the news from time to time. She is still a legal assistant and an environmental activist. It is likely that much of her environmental activism involves lawsuits that can be won and not so much as their actual merit. She succeeds because corporations still show little regard for the lives and welfare of the public, the people, the source of their wealth.
PG&G has since gone bankrupt.