Muckraking docs are known for digging up dirt, but few can dredge up as much actual muck as this one. Crude chronicles the compelling saga of a nearly two-decade-long legal struggle between oil conglomerate Texaco/Chevron and the people of Ecuador. After 30 years of operations in the Amazon, the petroleum giant denies any role in the massive contamination that has disrupted the area's ecosystem and devastated the local population.
In one breath, the company's reps deny any pollution, and in the next try to pin all the damage on local firms, which have been drilling the same land only half as long. Clearly someone's to blame: The locals are suffering unusually high cancer rates, birth defects and all sorts of other diseases due to corrupted water and black, crude-clogged soil. Equally clogged are the gears of justice, which corporate attorneys have gunked up with years of appeals, injunctions and bullying.
Pablo Fajardo, a laborer-turned-lawyer and a tireless defender of his people's rights, steps bravely to face this foul behemoth. He gets backup from a powerful U.S. firm, and from slick New York lawyer Steven Donziger, who works tirelessly to expose the case to the world. His media-savvy approach works; just when it looks like the trial will be consigned to eternal limbo, a Vanity Fair article makes the case front-page news. Soon enough, do-gooder Sting and his wife, Trudy Styler, are aboard, quick to lend their influence; though Fajardo humbly admits he's never heard of the Police, he's glad for the backstage pass.
Crude is amazingly level-headed, taking a fairly nuanced, thoughtful look at a story that could be easily exploited for sentimental value. Director Berlinger gives the Texaco flacks plenty of rope to hang themselves with as they earnestly attempt to peddle the company line, even as it starts to unravel. For his part, Donziger is shown as the manipulative, image-conscious creature he is, eager to hop into any spotlight. But as Crude brilliantly points out, when you're fighting through a jungle of red tape, any ray of light helps.
Showing at the Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238; burtontheatre.com/calendar.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].