Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) takes injustice from no one. After losing – unfairly in her view as in ours – a court case involving a freak car accident, Brockovich decides to visit her anger upon the lawyer who represented her, Ed (Albert Finney). She moves into his office, starts working and demands a wage.
Brockovich's true destiny swims into focus when clues fall her way pointing to a massive case of corporate injustice. The poisoning of local citizens seems inescapably linked to the chemical operations of a nearby factory. Brockovich is able to tease out the facts partly through her human touch – those in dire need instinctively trust her immediately.
American films like EDtv (1999), and Australian movies including The Castle (1997) and The Wog Boy (2000), strain to whip up a populist ambience – usually via tales of the triumph of an ordinary underdog against a malevolent, impersonal system. Erin Brockovich, based on a true story, is a supreme monument to populism – and never once does it seem cynical or opportunistic.
Cinema has recently taken a keen interest in maddening, impossible women of various stripes – especially politically fanatical ones, like those played by Judy Davis in Children of the Revolution (1996) and Lily Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). Like them, Brockovich is obsessed, and will sacrifice any part of her private life (like romance or family) for her righteous cause.
Even for those who work with her, she is a bundle – demanding, pushy, undiplomatic, quick to think the worst of anyone and say it aloud. Yet is it exactly these qualities which make her politically effective, and a delight to observe. Brockovich has a special flair for hurling inventive insults, and Roberts makes the most of the role's foul-mouthed requirements.
Modern American cinema has often offered the somewhat embarrassing spectacle of acclaimed actresses (such as Jessica Lange and Sally Field) in full, histrionic mode as salt-of-the-earth, working class heroines – as if it were a species of drag. Roberts quickly overcomes any initial audience resistance to her incarnation of the brassy, trashily feminine Brockovich.
The performance is a highpoint in Roberts' career because it transforms the star, in a stroke, into a proud hero of the people. Finney – an inspired, surprising casting choice – is her perfect foil: harried, cautious, reluctant, physically recessive, rarely emotive. Ed cops it in a thousand ways from Erin – until a magnificent scene in which he affectionately turns the tables.
The confident, uncluttered direction by Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, 1998) ensures that there are very few false steps in this movie. A dreadful frolic montage of Brockovich taking samples of contaminated water, as jaunty music plays, is mercifully brief. Yet even this seemingly gratuitous scene has a delicious pay-off later, when she confronts a team of corporate lawyers and pours out the samples as drinking water.
Some viewers will undoubtedly find frustrating the sidelong way in which the film deals with Erin's mounting problems with her kids and her boyfriend, George (Aaron Eckhart). But, like another distinguished film based on real-life events, Michael Mann's The Insider (1999), Erin Brockovich displays a sure sense of which story threads need to be foregrounded. It is a superbly constructed, politically savvy and effortlessly rousing entertainment.
© Adrian Martin April 2000