By John Anderson
Friday, October 23, 2009
Had Michael Moore wanted to make a serious movie about capitalism, he would have made "Crude." Joe Berlinger's scorched-earth documentary and David-and-Goliath drama offers more than a few eco-outraged observations on the not-so-free enterprise system: As the film very eloquently implies, when the greater good is defined as profits, and a lack of culpability is proportionate to your number of shareholders, well . . . a lot of petroleum-soaked chickens will be coming home to roost.
For three years, Berlinger followed the now-17-year-old lawsuit against Chevron filed by 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorans, and the results are an eco-war strategy as might have been devised by Sun Tzu. Witnesses are prepped, strategies are rehearsed, judges are buttonholed and celebrities are stroked -- and this is the strategy of the "good guys," as they probably would be defined by Berlinger. While both sides in the case certainly are given their voice, it's unlikely that the director -- who enjoys a lucrative commercial career in New York -- would have been inspired to leave hearth and home by his deep sense of injustice over the sufferings of Chevron.
And yet, "Crude" is that rare thing in fiction or nonfiction cinema, a movie that relies on its audience to draw the right conclusions. Chevron makes a decent case for itself: It wasn't even in the Amazon from 1972 to 1990, when an alleged 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater were dumped there, sickening the inhabitants (notably the plaintiff Cofán tribe). But Texaco was, and Chevron took it over in 2001. And while much blame is assigned by all parties to the government-owned PetroEcuador, which has run the country's oil production since the early '90s, all the experts brought in to make assessments conclude that the damage is deep and old.
Chevron's motives are clear -- although the pending judgment against it is "only" $27 billion, it hardly pays to set a precedent and settle. When Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, and his associate Luis Yanza receive the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2008, a Chevron spokesman is heard calling them liars. Lawyers for the Ecuadorans admit that a Chevron defeat could mean big fees. When we see Chevron's agents -- such as counsel Ricardo Reis Veiga, who has since been indicted for fraud -- they admit nothing.
Berlinger ("Brother's Keeper," "Paradise Lost") lets it play out artfully. The fact that Chevron's representatives come across as soulless shills is hardly his fault; he lets them present their case without comment. It's hardly his responsibility to make someone such as corporation scientist Sara McMillan appear less reptilian when she contends that there's been no damage to the jungle, no oil-related illness, no correlation between pollution and death. From what the viewer can tell, Chevron is a little like the guy who performed a little surgery and stole your kidneys: What kidneys? Prove you ever had kidneys! If the movie is any indication, Chevron would have the public believe there was no Amazon at all -- something people might be willing to believe, were Berlinger not sticking "Crude" in their faces.
Anderson is a freelance reviewer.
*** ½ Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains disturbing content. 105 minutes.