Not your cup of first-world guilt on a Friday night, when Mad Men
beckons from the Netflix queue and the last thing you want to think about is your carbon footprint? Then think again, because Crude
is spellbinding stuff, combining the courtroom cut-and-thrust of a legal thriller with the moral outrage that lights the fuse of every rousing call for social justice. Berlinger decided to make a documentary about Aguinda v. Chevron-Texaco
just as the case was entering its evidentiary phase, in 2005, a made-for-prime-time human drama that Crude
exploits to the fullest. Berlinger wrings high emotion from judicial inspections of allegedly contaminated sites deep in the jungle. Technical experts pull up core samples of toxic glop and brandish them, dripping, before the judge and a rapt crowd; the charismatic young lawyer for the plaintiffs, a former oilfield worker and local hero named Pablo Fajardo, squares off with Chevron’s corporate counsels, each side fitting this new piece of evidence into its mosaic of guilt or innocence.
The movie ends in the present, with a decision still pending. The American attorney for the plaintiffs, Steven Donziger, believes that Chevron, the world’s fifth largest corporation, is using its practically bottomless legal fund to run down the clock, trying to “sap our resources, sap our will.” Litigation may drag on for another decade, the movie concludes. Meanwhile, Chevron is launching a counteroffensive in the image war, using its YouTube channel to accuse the Ecuadorean judge presiding over its lawsuit of corruption, buying ad space on Google to air a superslick faux-news clip designed to pass as a CNN report, down to the narration by former CNN correspondent Gene Randall.Crude
is, among other things, about the eloquence of images; the power of things beheld. Although Berlinger insists, in the “Director’s Statement” included in the movie’s publicity packet, that “the best way to serve truth is to explore a situation from all sides without overtly revealing the filmmaker’s viewpoint, allowing each audience member to come up with his or her own conclusion about the events they are witnessing onscreen,” the movie's visual rhetoric is powerful and persuasive. In one scene, Chevron’s defense counsel harangues a crowd, telling its members that the plaintiff’s American counsel is a fat cat, only in it for the money. Berlinger cuts to a blind accordionist nearby, his melancholy wheezing a sly commentary on the windy mendacity of the lawyer’s song, his sightless squint an allusion to the lawyer’s insistence that we turn a blind eye on Chevron’s toxic sins.
An ice-cool Chevron scientist flatly rejects claims that oil production is to blame for the region’s perceived spike in cancer rates. But the lead-in to her rebuttal is a creepy close-up of a duck in a villager’s yard, sick, maybe dying, its webbed feet twitching convulsively. Nearby, a weeping mother tells us about her daughter, gnawed to the bone by cancer. The chickens she’d hoped would pay for the girl’s treatment are dead, killed, she says, by contamination from the oil-production station 10 meters from her house. The camera follows her son into the brush, where he tosses the limp birds unceremoniously into a thicket. Then comes the Chevron scientist, coolly insisting that “Chevron takes those kinds of allegations very seriously,” but that there’s “absolutely no evidence that there’s an increase in cancer death rates.” To be sure, she concedes, “There are people there that are sick,” but “it’s a very poor region.” Cut to a close-up of an investigator pulling a core sample out of the ground. The crowd leans in. In a rubber-gloved hand, he squishes the soil sample; oily muck, black as vomito negro,
squelches between his fingers.
Drill, baby, drill. Until you hit the truth.