Over his 20-year career as a documentary filmmaker, Joe Berlinger has generally found gripping stories behind the surface stories he’s ostensibly covering: complicated murder investigations in Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost; the internecine conflict of a rock band in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. And in Crude, he’s done it again.
The surface story here is compelling in its own right: the battle by indigenous tribes of Ecuador vs. Texaco/Chevron over petroleum contamination of their Amazon towns. He picks up in 2006 a legal battle already more than a decade old, with local attorney Pablo Fajardo attempting to prove that Texaco/ Chevron polluted the water and failed to remediate when its operations ended in the 1990s. As more than one individual observes onscreen, it’s a classic David-vs.-Goliath battle.
But Berlinger focuses much of his attention on a fascinating element of this case: the savvy media campaign led by the plaintiffs’ American consulting attorney, Steven Donziger. He figures out how to turn Fajardo’s crusade into something that becomes a Vanity Fair feature; he coaches one man on how to give an impassioned speech before the Chevron annual board meeting; he garners the support of Sting’s activist wife, Trudie Styler, advising her to “mention the word ‘Texaco’ as much as possible” when discussing the case. While tense spokespeople attempt to defend Texaco/Chevron to the camera, it’s obvious that Donziger’s an infinitely better salesman for his clients’ side of the story.
Berlinger isn’t above a little salesmanship himself, and Crude proves at times to be fairly conventional nonfiction advocacy in setting up the story’s heroes and villains. When he plays a Chevron attorney’s denials of corporate responsibility over footage of a villager undergoing cancer treatments, it’s pretty clear whose side he’s on. The film proves more intriguing when Berlinger explores not just what he sees, but what a story becomes when the world is watching.
Directed by Joe Berlinger