A Tale of Two Movies: Brave Blue World and Dark Waters
It was the best of water, it was the worst of water, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the year of COVID and Brave Blue World and the year of Dark Waters. Two films on water bridged the gulf between Charles Dickens' spring of hope and darkness of despair, showing audiences two sides of the ongoing evolution of the water industry.
Dark Waters takes the gloomier turn, shining a light on one of the more disturbing stories of corporate hubris. Producer Mark Ruffalo stars as Robert Bilott, a Cincinnati chemical-industry lawyer drawn into two decades of legal combat by a farmer whose cattle died of mysterious ailments. As Bilott—the subject of a 2016 New York Times Magazine article titled, "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare"—dives deeper into the opaque case, he realizes he's up against a global economic power, former client, key employer, and coveted product. Taking on DuPont and its disposal of PFOA that ultimately contaminated water supplies in West Virginia and Ohio, Bilott challenged the "Better Living Through Chemistry" slogan and prompted the world's largest epidemiological study on the health effects of PFOA, the persistent, profitable, long-chain fluorocarbon at the heart of flame retardants like Teflon.
The movie hit me hard. In part, it was deeply disappointing to see the depiction of a company shirking its public responsibility and putting people—in many cases, its own people and their families—at risk. But it was also a reminder of the wonder and fascination I felt as a kid at the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, NY, marveling at the DuPont pavilion. I was entranced. Forget the singing and dancing: the guy on stage made Nylon before our eyes!
I declared to my parents that I was going to be a chemist when I grew up, locked myself in the bathroom and mixed a formulation of iodine, hydrogen peroxide and talcum powder. The blend produced a violent reaction. Not chemically...but when I dropped it on my mother's brand-new bath mat, her response was pretty reactive. After grounding me for two weeks, my parents presented me with a chemistry set to focus my ambitions on more controlled experiments. (We didn't talk about the vial of sodium cyanide included in the chemistry kits of the day.)
After receiving my degree in chemical engineering about a decade later, I began following through on my career path, which has featured a decided lack of laboratory time.
I got into chemistry to help create better living, so by the time the last scene faded to the Man in Black—Johnny Cash singing Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" under the closing credits—I was feeling pretty dark indeed.
Not long afterward, Paul O'Callaghan of BlueTech Research released Brave Blue World, a labor of love that is also a love letter to the water industry. Paul's feature, narrated by Liam Neeson and featuring Matt Damon and Jaden Smith, lays out a series of challenges facing the world and introduces us to the innovators who are addressing them. If Dark Waters is today's Erin Brockovich, Brave Blue World is The Right Stuff—a celebration of intelligence, creativity, drive and heroes. We see nature as the measure, the model and the mentor. From two entrepreneurs turning human waste into fuel—one an African businessman going house to house to collect the raw materials for his briquettes to a Dutch innovator whose toilet-to-tank journey ends in his sustainable car—to L'Oreal's "dry factory" in France, we see innovation at every level and we are excited by it.
We even get to see a different side of DuPont—a post-Dark Waters company with a Water Solutions business, a dynamic global leader of sustainability, and even a business that helps clean up water contaminated with fluorinated chemicals. Brave Blue World makes no bones about the high stakes and the gravity of the problem—just watch the trailer. But make sure you watch the whole movie, too. After a look at the dark side—and it is very dark—in the top-shelf feature production Dark Waters, it's refreshing to see light, even if it is at the end of a long tunnel. Even the final credits leave viewers with a different feeling: U2's Bono singing the uplifting "Every Breaking Wave."
Water has had more than its share of problems. But as Matt Damon says in Brave Blue World, "how lucky are we that we're the ones who get to solve this?"
How lucky indeed.