Can’t tell who might win long legal fight in ‘Crude’

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, October 22, 2009 10:07pm
  • Life

An all-too-familiar scenario of oil production, corruption and environmental hangover is depicted in “Crude,” another documentary of misery.

This time the focus is on a section of Ecuador that has been befouled by a few decades of oil extraction; first by Texaco, then (since the 1990s) by a nationalized Ecuadoran concern.

More specifically, the film is about a lawsuit being pressed by U.S. and Ecuador trial lawyers on behalf of the people in the affected area. Giant pits of muck, reports of cancer and petroleum-scented drinking water are among the exhibits in the case.

The lawsuit is being waged against Chevron (which merged with Texaco in 2001), whose representatives are allowed to speak at length during the movie. Their arguments tend to return to the idea that stuff was clean when they left town; the toxic gunk is the fault of the Ecuadorean company that followed them into the jungle.

The lawyers become the key figures for the plaintiffs: U.S. attorney Steven Donziger, whose media-savvy drive comes across as obnoxious at times, and Ecuadorean lawyer Pablo Fajardo, who is frequently described as the David in this fight with the oil Goliath.

Danziger is correct about the media angle: It’s after Vanity Fair magazine does a big photo spread on the case and then Sting and his activist wife, Trudie Styler, get personally involved that their efforts get real traction.

The lawsuit itself has been dragging on for more than a decade and a half, and more than one person suggests that Chevron’s strategy is basically to keep it going forever.

Director Joe Berlinger, whose strong documentary record includes “Brother’s Keeper” and the Metallica portrait “Some Kind of Monster,” spent three years tracking the case. Even though we might conclude that he sides with the Ecuadorans, he includes less-than-flattering glimpses of the plaintiffs’ legal strategies and acknowledges that the U.S. law firm involved stands to make an enormous fee in a settlement.

At one point it is suggested that the settlement could be more than $25 billion, and someday perhaps it will be. Berlinger’s film ends at a logical point in the process, but the case itself is dragging on, complete with recent revelations of more corruption in the process.

As with his multifilm, years-spanning look at the “West Memphis 3” murder case in the “Paradise Lost” films, Berlinger may need to return to this story at some point. Right now it’s still mired in sludge.


Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger spent three years tracking the case of Ecuadorean plaintiffs suing Chevron for allegedly befouling their native habitat (a case that will probably go on for many years). Everybody gets their say, which makes this a compelling study in misery. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter

Showing: Varsity

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