This 2000 biopic traces the real-life story of Erin Brockovich, a broke, uneducated single mother of 3 who happens to stumble on a major cover up by PG&E and ends up winning the largest direct-action lawsuit in United States history. Erin first happens upon a suspicious real estate case involving the Pacific Gas & Electric company while working as a legal assistant at a small firm. Outraged when she realizes they’ve been improperly disposing of toxic hexavalent chromium and poisoning the residents of Hinkley, the formerly desperate single mother uncovers her purpose: to punish the $28 billion corporation and serve justice.
When the film opens, Erin is at her breaking point. After fumbling through a job interview, Erin pulls out of her parking space only to be smashed by an E.R. doctor speeding through a red light. Hoping to win a settlement for her injuries, Erin enlists the help of lawyer Ed Masry. A few moments later we see Erin in a neck brace presenting her case to a courtroom: “I don’t have insurance so now I’m about $17,000 in debt,” she confesses, hoping to garner sympathy from the jury. “Does your husband help you out?” the defense questions. “Which one?” Erin asks with the toughness of a woman who’s used to being betrayed. “There’s more than one?” he responds judgmentally, suggesting he’s both shocked and a little disgusted that’s she’s been married more than once. Ed’s legal strategy to paint Erin as a hapless victim worthy of pity backfires shortly after when the defense lawyer accuses her of purposely hitting his client for money. “That asshole smashed in my fucking neck!” she screams back, defensive. When Erin gives her profanity-laden reply, she seals her fate: the jury dismisses her as a white trash single mom looking for a meal ticket and hands in a not guilty verdict for the doctor.
This is our first introduction to the troubling irony of the U.S. justice system: Erin, who in fact tells the truth, loses while the hot shot doctor in a Jaguar just walks away. In this opening scene, Erin Brockovich suggests there is no retribution for lawbreakers (if they have money), certainly no justice for victims. Most often, the little guy goes to jail and the titan corporation (or double-dealing politician or swindling stock broker) gets away with murder.
In a nation where democracy has been overrun by greed and the 1% have been divided from the 99%, Erin Brockovich resonates today more than ever. At present, most Americans seriously doubt the integrity of our government and justice system. What makes Erin Brockovich so appealing is that it restores our faith in justice and order: in the end, morality prevails and the residents of Hinkley win the lawsuit. In a way, Erin represents all the people our justice system neglects-the minorities, the drug addicts, the single mothers- so it is all the more satisfying when she puts that system on trial and bulldozes it to the ground.
Director Soderbergh’s southern California is desolate and barren much like the wasteland of corruption Erin encounters there. A $28 billion corporation, PG&E proves a mammoth adversary, its Hinkley plant a menacing force that hovers above every shot. Throughout the film, the monster corporation erects roadblock after roadblock to impede Erin from filing (and winning) her lawsuit: they intimidate her, drown her in paperwork, even threaten her at her home.
At its core, Erin Brockovich is an underdog’s tale. “It’s kind of like David and what’s his name,” Erin smirks with Roberts’ trademark winning smile. “Yeah,” Ed scoffs, “it’s kind of like what’s his name’s whole fucking family.” But rather than resort to what film critic Todd McCarthy calls the “hackneyed movie hoopla of hooting and hollering” typical of such courtroom dramas, Erin Brockovich ends on an understated, even anti-climactic note. There’s no closing court scene, no final showdown between Erin and PG&E. Instead, the film concludes with Erin and her boyfriend George visiting Donna Jensen, one of their plaintiffs, on a quiet summer day. While sipping lemonade on the porch, Erin reveals they’ve won the case: “I wanted to come here instead of calling because the judge came back with a number…he’s going to make them pay $333 million and he’s going to make them give 5 million of that to your family.”
Soderbergh’s choice to end the epic battle between Erin and PG&E in such a restrained way is effective for the same reason that stories are more persuasive than statistics. Statistics are cold, hard, purely factual, impersonal; stories are individual. If I tell you 1 in 5 children in the U.S. go to bed hungry, you might momentarily think to yourself, “Aw, that’s sad” but reflect no more about it. But if I tell you the story of a specific child, a child named Eduardo for instance, who has to rummage in the trash cans at school for extra food, the suffering of hungry children will feel more real to you. By focusing on one plaintiff, Donna, out of the hundreds who were poisoned and lied to by PG&E, Soderbergh renders the scene more poignant than if he had depicted more than one character. Because of this clever stylistic choice, we fully grasp Donna’s pain…and her relief that it’s all over.
Despite its artistic sensibilities, Erin Brockovich never forgets to establish its mainstream appeal: often times, the film resorts to trying-too-hard, clever-sounding banter, funny (if predictable) sitcom-like jokes, and an unbelievably leggy Roberts in a short skirt and cut-too-low top. Leading film critic Roger Ebert, among others, have accused Erin Brockovich of focusing too intently on Roberts’ sex appeal, claiming “unwise wardrobe decisions position her somewhere between a character and distraction.”
Sadly, the objection of women’s bodies for box office profits is nothing new-just look at any action movie trailer. Though Roberts’ aggressive cleavage is prominent in most shots, for me, her skimpy outfits contribute-not detract-from the development of her character. Erin Brockovich is a movie about a real woman, a working class woman who hilariously said “Roberts’ skirts weren’t short enough” upon seeing the premiere. However undignified, Roberts’ slutty attire maintains the film’s realism by capturing Erin the woman as she actually was. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense for a penniless single mom to be strutting around in high-end heels and classy pencil skirts.
At the end of the day, Erin Brockovich may have flaws but it never fails to entertain-and inspire.