Many filmmakers develop a preference for a particular type of storytelling. This might manifest in a predilection for a specific archetype, meme or set of themes that repeatedly drive their cinematic artistic expression. Then there those master class auteurs that seen to dabble between the numerous types of stories that are possible. Frequently, on closer examination; they are expertly selecting samples that provide a cross section of humanity withal their trials and tribulations. Reflected through a variety of stylistic prisms filmmakers such as Robert Wise was equally at home helming a musical set in the streets of New York City or traversing the void between the stars. Although usually focused here on planet earth another director of eclectic tastes in stories is Steven Soderbergh whose stories run the gamut of the human experience from drug trafficking to a franchise of exquisitely elaborate heist movies. In the film under consideration here is a prime example of the versatility embodied in his career. Rather that delving into the emotional and psychological depths of humanity this movie, is a biography that demonstrates what heights can be scaled by sheer determination, motivation and tenacity; Erin Brockovich. At some point or another we have all been told one a single person can make a difference or one candle can dispel the darkness but the story of Erin Brockovich provides proof positive that these old sayings are true.
The story of this regular woman that lifted up a community and brought an uncaring corporation to its knees began in 1993. Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is the most unlikely instrument of economic change and social reform. Erin is trying to provide as best she can for her three children but being unemployed it is exceptionally arduous. Making an already dire situation worse Eon is involved with a car accident. Seeing no recourse the she decides to sue the man responsible. To this end she engages the legal representation of a lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney). Ms Brockovich is not a person that most would regard a sympathetic plaintiff. Although Masry was certain the case was one he could win and mostly likely it would have gone that way but her proclivity for displaying her ample dťcollage and exceptionally outspoken demeanor turned the jury to the opposite verdict.
The one thing about Ms Brockovich; when she sets her mind to a goal she will do everything possible to achieve it. One the initial optimism of Mr. Masry to help alleviate her financial woes but without a settlement there was no hope in sight. Erin tended to travel the road of life in her own unique fashion; direct and devoid of pretense. Rather than asking the lawyer for a job and risk being turn down Erin just shows up at his office and starts in as his administrative assistant. Understandably Ed is shocked and tries to explain he never made a guarantee; the case just didnít go as it anticipated. Touched by her predicament he lets her stay on, the first case he has her work on seemed fairly straightforward, a real estate case; Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has offered to purchase the home of Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger), a \resident of a small community, Hinkley, California. Even to Erinís legally untrained eye it seemed peculiar that a number of medical records would be in a film pertaining to a simple real estate transaction. One manifestation of Erinís suborn disposition is in insatiable curiosity. Her first matter of business, albeit one definitely beyond the scope of her office duties is to pay a visit to Donna. She informs Erin that for the sake of expedience all the PG&E files together, Donnaís husband was afflicted with several tumors and Hodgkin's disease. PG&E had kindly paid all of the medical bills. When Erin pressed her why a large, profit oriented corporation would demonstrate such uncharacteristic largess the answer was simple, "because of the Chromium". It turns out that a byproduct of their operation contaminated the ground water with hexavalent chromium, a proven carcinogen. They insist that they have altered the process to employ a "safer form of chromium". Certain that the official corporate statement had more to do with more maximizing the bottom line than public safety Erin convinces Ed to let her proceed with her investigation.
One of the first hurdles was to gain the trust of the community. Not only did lack any formal training or any expertise pertaining to any aspect of what was going on but this close knit, conservative community found it difficult to take a young woman with such pronounced cleavage seriously with the women even less prone to listen to her. Impossible to yield to any obstacle and apparently not conducive to tone down her image one by one the members of the afflicted community are won over by her overwhelming enthusiasm. The next mountain to climb has stymied even the best trained and well-seasoned lawyers and investigators; the mindset of the corporate hierarchy. Erinís brash appearance and personality might have worked greatly in her favor. Like televisionís Lieutenant Colombo whose unkempt trench coat and annoying manner cloaking a brilliant, albeit underestimated detective, no one in PS&G gave an iota of serious concern over this busty mother of three. It would ultimately be the end of their lethal deception.
Steven Soderbergh is an undeniable cinematic genius. Unlike many of his fellow directors Mr. Soderbergh has a quiet, almost understated style. While hardily useful for a big summer blockbuster that type of movie has never appealed to this filmmaker. He has the heart of a member of the independent film community with favorable access to the major studios. His talents are predisposed to relating tales deeply emotional in nature and psychological in context. Film like this probe personalities that are not unlike the ones we might across paths with any given day but are unaware of what they are capable of doing. In some ways there is a dichotomy in this director splitting his oeuvre into two distinct parts. His ĎOceanís Ďfranchise is big in scope, large budget a huge cast of A list stars and filled with exciting entertainment. Then there is the serious side of his style well represented by this movie. Here Soderbergh uses his camera as a finely sharpened scalpel, dissecting the persona of his subjects. This biography is less about the great achievement of Ms Brockovich than an exploration of what would compel a mother of three to assume a cause as large and hopeless as this one. She is barely capable of providing for her family it appears foolhardy to divert her attention in this way. It comes down to what makes Erin such a unique personality. Right from the very beginning Soderbergh lays out his profile of this amazing woman. She marches proudly to her own drummer and if anyone to object Ms Brockovich as likely to storm right through then than circumvent their objections. She is a force of nature as impossible to ignore as a tornado. The same maternal imperative to provide for her children by barging into a manís office and take the job she needed was transfer to the townsfolk. She saw men, women and children grievously stricken with painfully terminal disease all for the sake of a padding the profit margin of an already lucrative utility. It was unimaginable for Erin to see the powerful act so heinously against the innocent. Not to do what she did was as impossible for her as not breathing,
Soderbergh went beyond bringing the story to the screen; he created a creative environment for some the best performances from some of the generationís finest actors. Albert Finney with five Academy Award nominations has been a solid performer for decades. His ability to portray strong willed men made him perfect for a lawyer who found he could not resist the persuasive will power of this woman. he gives Ed the strength of character so that the audience is aware he did not hire Erin for her looks; he saw something extraordinary she was. Despite the fact that the film boasts many fine performances this film belongs to Julia Roberts who took home the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for this portrayal. Her forte has always been her innate ability to put on the complete personality of her character with the ease of sliding into a pair of nicely broken in jeans. The hallmark of a great actress is being able to coax the audience into forgetting they are watching a performance from one of their favorite actresses and believing they are their character. For a couple of hours Ms Roberts ceases to exist in your mind as you are pulled into the life of Erin Brockovich.
Spotlight On Location: The Making Of Erin Brockovich