Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters recounts the extraordinary journey of Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defense attorney who becomes DuPont’s worst nightmare when he uncovers a coverup that is putting hundreds of West Virginian families at risk. Along with a cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, and Bill Pullman, Ruffalo transforms the hard facts of this legal case into pulse-quickening suspense thriller. While the historical details are important, Haynes reminds us that what we remember is the emotional drama: “The true focus is on the little guy, his or her process, and the peril— psychic, emotional, if not mortal—faced by that individual who stands up to the truth.”
With Dark Waters now playing in select theaters, we look back at other films who transformed political stories ripped from the headlines into thrillers whose emotional truths we return to again and again.
The Constant Gardener | The heart of Africa
In Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener, the careful world crafted by career diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) spirals out of control when he attempts to uncover the truth about how—and why—his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) was murdered. Adapted from John Le Carré’s thriller, the film threads together a plot of multinational corporations, African politics, and personal greed to provide a chilling look at how big pharma operates in developing countries. While at its heart The Constant Gardener is, in USA Today’s words, “a taut and gripping thriller that dazzles the eyes and engages the brain,” it also shines a light on a global political reality that few know anything about. For le Carré, “I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard."
Promised Land | Trouble in America’s heartland
Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land weaves a tangled web of corporate influence and local politics in a story set in a struggling Pennsylvania farming town. Matt Damon plays an energy company agent who, along with his colleague (Frances McDormand), entice locals to sell off their land rights for oil fracking. A local environmentalist (played by John Krasinski) arrives in town to counter Damon's smooth-talking spiel. In a taut screenplay co-written by Damon and Krasinski, however, what appears like a simple duel between capitalism and green politics quickly turns into a much more twisty and complex thriller. “Nothing is clear-cut, except for the inherent decency of ordinary people,” notes USA Today about Promised Land, whose plot is ripped from the headlines but whose heart belongs to small-town America.
Kill The Messenger | The Contras, cocaine, and the CIA
In Michael Cuesta’s Kill The Messenger, Jeremy Renner plays Gary Webb, the real-life journalist whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 articles for the San Jose Mercury News scooped all the big papers in telling the story of the CIA’s involvement in trafficking cocaine for the Contras. In addition to being a heart-pounding thriller, Kill The Messenger is a poignant drama about how that hunt to uncover the truth helped to unravel Webb. Renner recalls how “I’ve always found it very challenging to play someone who existed … because you have to be accountable, responsible, and truthful.” For many, Renner's piercing performance captured fully what telling the truth cost Webb. New York Magazine’s film critic David Edelstein recalls how the film “made me so angry over the apparent injustice done to its journalist hero… that I found it hard to remain in my seat.”
Closed Circuit | Post 9/11 Surveillance
John Crowley’s political thriller Closed Circuit takes a cinematic snapshot of the world we live in now. When a terrorist bomb kills 120 people in London’s Borough Market, there are plenty of cameras to record the events, but none to capture the truth. When the police arrest a young boy, his lawyer (Eric Bana) is prohibited from fully representing his client by a series of recently enacted laws that allow government surveillance documents to remain secret. They can only be viewed by a special advocate (Rebecca Hall), who can not communicate directly her knowledge to the defense. For Slate, the filmmakers “successfully conjure a post-9/11 and 7/7 society under surveillance, with security cameras frequently serving as the viewer’s lens.” As a thriller, Closed Circuit also tallies up the emotional cost of living in this brave new world, of how, explains Crowley, “you see peoples’ hopes and wishes and disappointments about the world rub up against a degree of power or authority.”
Catch a Fire | The legacy of Apartheid
Phillip Noyce’s Catch A Fire brings to the screen the remarkable tale of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a South African oil worker who is radicalized after being unfairly arrested and brutally tortured by Police Security Branch Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins). Based on real South African events and characters, this tense political thriller provides, as the BBC notes, “a stark illustration of how an oppressive regime sows the seeds of its own destruction.” For the filmmakers, the movie’s real power lay not in uncovering Apartheid’s tragic reality, but in reclaiming the human side of history. “We made the film simply because it was a wonderful story—and an uplifting one, finally,” explains Noyce.