Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich is a mom on a mission, a feisty but otherwise ordinary penniless unemployed single mother with three young kids, a foul mouth and a quick temper, no training or qualifications but any amount of guts and perseverance.  She’s definitely one you want on your side rather than against you.  Subtle she ain’t, but her hard work eventually pays off for the people she helps.  Oh, and did I mention that she’s a real person too?  See here for further details.

In Erin Brockvich the movie, her alter ego is none other than Julia Roberts, which most women would regard as a massive compliment, and I doubt Ms Brockovich objected too strenuously.  Doubtless her boss, Edward L Masry, would not have objected to being portrayed by Salford’s very own Albert Finney, though sadly he died in 2005.  He did however play a small non-speaking cameo in the movie – nice touch!

The same is probably not true of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), since they it was that Masry and Brockovich on behalf of 634 ordinary plaintiffs sued for damages for their reckless use of deadly hexavalent chromium, thereby causing a host of health issues. But history – and movies – are made by the winners, and in this case they lost heavily and justly.  We only see them in the shape of hot shot lawyers looking icy calm in the face of verbal broadsides from Brockovich, and of course their factory with its contaminated water pools.

The smoking gun, a document proving Head Office knew about the pollution but took no action and instructed the plant to keep it secret, was passed to Brockovich and the judge in the binding arbitration eventually ordered PG&E to pay $333m to the victims, thus ensuring the names of Masry and Brockovich went down in history, and their bank balances higher than they previously dreamed possible.  To this day, Brockovich works as an environmental campaigner and adviser to law firms against vexatious corporates, for which massive credit is due.

But what of Erin Brockovich the movie, Roberts, Finney and all?  Director Steven Soderbergh does a very competent job bringing this story to the screen.  His film probably short-cuts some of the truth to keep it neat and simple, and maybe aspects of their personas were trimmed to keep it a well-honed tale of good against evil.  They aren’t exactly portrayed as saints anyway, but doubtless their worst excesses ended up on the cutting room floor.  Sure enough, here is what Wikipedia says on the subject of accuracy:

While the general facts of the story are accurate, there are some minor discrepancies between actual events and the movie, as well as a number of controversial and disputed issues more fundamental to the case. In the film, Erin Brockovich appears to deliberately use her cleavage to seduce the water board attendant to allow her to access the documents. Brockovich has acknowledged that her cleavage may have had an influence, but denies consciously trying to influence individuals in this way. In the film, Ed Masry represents Erin Brockovich in the car crash case. In reality, it was his law partner, Jim Vititoe. Brockovich had never been Miss Wichita; she had been Miss Pacific Coast. According to Brockovich, this detail was deliberately changed by Soderbergh as he thought it was “cute” to have her be beauty queen of the region from which she came.

The scientific accuracy of the film has been questioned. According to The New York Times, scientists have suggested that their profession would have more rationally and scientifically evaluated the medical evidence that inspired Brockovich. One scientist who spoke to the paper urged audiences to ask themselves if the science supports the film’s assertions.

Soderbergh’s strength lies in guiding his narrative, and of course coaxing from Roberts the gritty performance from Roberts, cleavage notwithstanding, that won her her only Academy Award to date (Best Actress.)  Maybe the role is slightly out of character, especially the swearing (do I give a fuck?) but doing for this case what Meryl Streep did in Silkwood gave her ample scope to demonstrate her talents and put to bed the millstone around her neck, namely Pretty Woman.  Credit to her, there is depth and shade in the on-screen Brockovich, not something you can say about every biopic with a satisfactory winning ending.  However, not everybody thought the same.  A few sniffy comments amid general adulation:

The majority of critics responded favorably towards the film. It holds a certified “Fresh” rating of 84% on film review website Rotten Tomatoes and 73 metascore on Metacritic. In his review for The New York ObserverAndrew Sarris wrote, “We get the best of independent cinema and the best of mainstream cinema all in one package. Erin Brockovich, like Wonder Boys right before it, makes the year 2000 seem increasingly promising for movies”.

Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen began his review with, “Julia Roberts is flat-out terrific in Erin Brockovich.” Furthermore, he wrote, “Roberts has wasted her effervescence on many paltry projects, but she hits the jackpot this time. Erin, single mother of three, a former Miss Wichita who improbably rallies a community to take on a multi-billion-dollar corporation, is the richest role of her career, simultaneously showing off her comic, dramatic and romantic chops”.

Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, “Roberts shows the emotional toll on Erin as she tries to stay responsible to her children and to a job that has provided her with a first taste of self-esteem”. In his review for Entertainment WeeklyOwen Gleiberman wrote, “It’s a delight to watch Roberts, with her flirtatious sparkle and undertow of melancholy, ricochet off Finney’s wonderfully jaded, dry-as-beef-jerky performance as the beleaguered career attorney who knows too much about the loopholes of his profession to have much faith left in it”  In her review for the Village VoiceAmy Taubin wrote, “What’s pretty original about the picture is that it focuses an investigative drama based on a true story around a comic performance”.

In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “After proving, for about 40 minutes, what a marvelous actress she can be, Ms. Roberts spends the next 90 content to be a movie star. As the movie drags on, her performance swells to bursting with moral vanity and phony populism”. Time magazine’s Richard Corliss found the film to be “slick, grating and false. We bet it makes a bundle”.  

In truth, they are all right.  Finney is Finney having fun, but there is a strong supporting cast of solid, dependable character actors to shore up the stars, and not a clunker among them.

If I have an issue with Erin Brockovich it’s that it falls too easily into the Hollywood traps and risks appearing formulaic.  Yes, Erin’s family like had to be portrayed, but the “reluctant love interest” gambit (here Aaron Eckhart) has been used a million times before.  For me, Soderbergh would have won more plaudits for defying convention and ploughing his own course rather more often than he does, not that he does it badly at all.  However, it is telling that he beat himself to the Oscar for best director, being awarded for Traffic rather than Erin Brockovich.


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