Erin Brockovich (2000)

Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Starring Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart

At the end of the movie, two final scenes find an ugliness in this movie’s heart that I’m not entirely sure the movie would think is ugly. In the first, Brockovich (Roberts) receives a check from Masry (Finney) which he “warns” her is not the amount they agreed upon for her bonus. He knows this will wind her up; she gets wound up; she looks at the check and sees that, after all the yelling she did just now, it’s for two million dollars. Earlier in the movie, Brockovich had sixteen dollars in the bank. (She knows exactly because she’s actually desperate in that moment! Take note, Hillbilly Elegy!) Now, given some modicum of curation which we know she’s capable of, she and her children will never be so desperate again. She sits at her desk, for the first time a little lost for words. Then, in the movie’s final sequence, we see her driving out to another home somewhere in California. There’s another set of possible plaintiffs in Kettleman Hills who will bring suit against PG&E, and she’s back to her work of knocking on doors and making the connections which brought 634 Hinkley suits into the fold of binding arbitration. The final shot of the movie is on her, from the perspective of someone who might be behind the screen door looking out at her. In short, the movie ends with Erin Brockovich making it big, rewarded for the work she’s done on these whistleblowing cases. What had made her different from someone like Ed Masry was that she could relate to the plaintiffs. Many of them were deep in debt, living in small houses or tight apartments. They had kids who they feared for. They were regular people whose fingernails were cracking from holding on so tight; she saw herself in those people. Their stories became stories that she wielded against snooty legal types in their ivory tower boardrooms. In every room, there are the lawyers, and then there’s Erin Brockovich, sticking out like a sore thumb.

The movie skirts a fascinating series of questions here in the final minute or so, and all of them have to be raised because the movie sees Brockovich’s bonus as the logical reward for all those hours of toil and sacrifice. Clearly, she’s given up everything to work on behalf of people who, without her original intercession, wouldn’t have gotten any kind of compensation from PG&E. The movie clearly begins with us intending to sympathize with Brockovich, as well; that first fifteen minutes is a maelstrom of sundrenched misery in which we are supposed to fall for this bristling, endangered woman with too many bills, as many kids as she can deal with, and not nearly enough support. I still can’t shake the weirdness of that focus, though, the same way that many years later The Post would present stock options as such an important consideration when the Pentagon Papers and the Bill of Rights are on the line. And so:

  1. Is there something more important than money that makes her different than Ed Masry? 
    1. There’s a scene in the movie in which Ed talks about how hard he’s worked, all the health problems he’s had. The movie casts him, though, as a person who is basically unable to speak to the plaintiffs in this case because there is a class gap between them. Erin has to translate for him on multiple occasions, at one point even explaining why the lawyer is going to walk away with forty percent of whatever payment PG&E puts out there. Will Erin continue be as effective a communicator if she is, at this point, living a life that is probably not going to be so very different from Masry’s? George (Eckhart), who was originally kind of a kindred spirit, must be like an alien to Erin at this point, and George is a lot more like the sweaty poor people who Erin meets and cajoles signatures from than she is by the end of the movie. Is she not going to hire an exterminator, send her kids to daycare, move out of her cheap house because that will make her less likely to relate with the people she’s supposed to whip into line for the next case against PG&E?
  2. What does the American Dream mean if hard work, hustling, sacrifice are all done on the back of human suffering?
    1. What, indeed.
  3. Is Erin Brockovich a more important person than Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger)?
    1. Should this movie be about the Donna Jensens of the case? Would that be a more humane, more serious telling of this story? And why does the suffering of a Donna Jensen, whose body has been ravaged by cancer and will be further ravaged by surgeries which she fears will totally defeminize her, become plot grist? Meanwhile the suffering of Erin Brockovich, which is ameliorated rapidly with a steady paycheck, is enough to carry the first half of a movie. Her struggle to get on her feet is a ferocious one, but it is basically fixed once she gets herself unfired from the law firm and brought back with an increase in pay and benefits. What can salve Donna Jensen’s hurt so neatly?

It’s not that Erin Brockovich should not have gotten her two million dollars. It’s not that she didn’t do a series of brave, good things. It’s that the movie cannot think of an ending adequately happy enough for itself that doesn’t make Brockovich wealthy, as if that’s the best thing that’s come out of the situation for her. She’s already gotten her reward, as she tells George earlier in the movie. She has never walked into a room and heard it hush because people are waiting to hear what she says. She’s never been respected before, and working on this case has earned her—with good reason!—the respect of a great many people from all walks of life. One might argue that being on the right side of history has to be a pretty good feeling too. But deciding that money is the happy ending, the thing that puts a bow on Erin Brockovich, is almost unseemly. It’s easy to compare this movie to a descendant, Dark Waters, and at least Dark Waters never pretends that it’s money from DuPont that will make everything all right again. Dark Waters is about justice, in the end; Erin Brockovich is about the practicality of court-ordered settlements. I am in favor of both, to be clear, but there’s a reason only one of these movies stirs the blood.

Erin Brockovich does something genuinely interesting, and that is its exploration of what it means when a woman gives up home to pursue a goal. It’s in other movies. Norma Rae, down to the style of the title, considers what it’s like when a woman with children and a recent beau (in her case, husband) gives herself over to a cause at the expense of home comforts. Her husband does not take it all that well, which leads to a titanic passive-aggressive fight in their little home which Norma Rae wins. Erin has George, who takes to her immediately and, more importantly, seems like a good fit for her children. They like him, she likes him, he becomes a de facto stepdad, and Erin’s childcare worries are basically nil from then on. Eventually, after a series of fits and starts, George leaves, unable to bear being left alone with someone else’s kids, concerned that they’ll be damaged in some way by Erin’s continued absence from them. The scene where he hits the road has an entirely different resonance than what you get in movies about extraordinary men doing extraordinary things who leave a very ordinary wife and children at home. The movie is, to some extent, a little worried about how totally Brockovich has abandoned her family to get into environmental lawsuits. George’s points have merits. But the fact that it is this biker man (Eckhart, who is going to be remembered primarily for some very clean-cut looks later in this decade, is hilarious in the Hulk Hogan outfit he wears) having it out with the woman saving the world, and not some inversion of it, which makes the movie interesting. We are, as always, meant to side with Brockovich. In a utilitarian sense, she is absolutely doing the right thing by helping these hundreds of people reclaim their lives a little further; if her children don’t see her much for many months, then that’s understandable collateral damage. Yet the movie is also wise enough to make this good thing she’s doing feel rough on the people who it’s not benefiting at that precise moment. It counts the costs without blaming her for them, and that at least is a pretty admirable balance.

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