Narrative Analysis of Erin Brockovich

Erin_Brockovich_(film_poster)
Image from Rotten Tomatoes

The true story of Erin Brockovich was depicted in the self-titled movie released in 2000. The story is set in California in the 1990s. The film begins by introducing Brockovich (Julia Roberts) as a single mother with three children who is out of work. On the way out of an interview, her car is hit and she suffers injuries. She loses the lawsuit against the driver, although her lawyer, Albert L. Masry, promised her a victory. The lawyer (Albert Finney) takes pity on Brockovich and he ends up hiring her. Although she was hired to do menial secretary work, she discovers something questionable in one of Masry’s files: health records for one of his clients. Brockovich investigates further and realizes that the company, Pacific Gas and Electric, who was trying to buy Masry’s client’s house was actually guilty of contaminating the ground water with carcinogenic Chrominum-6, but had tried to wash their hands of guilt by paying for Masry’s client’s medical bills. The problem turned out to be widespread, and many people in Hinkley, the town where PG&E was located, suffered from medical problems. What was thought to be a simple property dispute turned out to be a class-action lawsuit including 634 plaintiffs claiming that PG&E had knowingly contaminated the town’s groundwater. The director (Steven Soderberg) and screenwriter (Susannah Grant) developed a narrative that portrayed the multi-billion dollar Pacific Gas and Electric company as the social and environmental villain by creating inclusive emotional portrayals of the characters and by depicting a clear conflict.

From the beginning of the movie Brockovich is portrayed as a hardworking yet struggling single-mother. Because the director, screenwriter, and actress portrayed Brockovich in a vulnerable state, I felt pity for her and wanted to be on her side. Although Brockovich is portrayed as being abrasive at times, the narrative of the single-mother is planted throughout. By doing this, viewers like myself are more likely to feel an emotional connection to the protagonist, and I therefore cared more about Brockovich’s case. The movie also focused on a few of the plaintiff’s cases. Brockovich did not view them as simply plaintiffs, though. She viewed them as people and she gained their trust by being vulnerable. One of the victims of PG&E’s negligence was Annabelle Daniels, an eight year-old with cancer. Whenever Daniels was included in a scene, she was shown surrounded by her parents and looked ill. During one scene, almost all of the victims were shown and they told bits of their stories including, “my daughter’s been in and out of the hospital” (2000). By creating sympathy for the victims and portraying them as struggling, working-class people, the contrast with the corporate giant PG&E is more extreme. In one scene that showed Masry and PG&E’s lawyers negotiating, the PG&E representative said, “Before you go off on your crusades you may want to remember who you’re dealing with…PG&E is a 28-billion-dollar corporation” (2000). In saying this, the PG&E representative was threatening that because the company has more power, they will automatically be more successful.

The movie had an apparent conflict and climax that supported the narrative. The conflict was literally depicted in the form of a class-action lawsuit. The case was a matter of environmental injustice. According to Donna Jensen, the first victim of the Chromium contamination, PG&E had misled the residents of Hinkley by telling them false information about the chromium they were ingesting. The corporation took advantage of the working-class residents of the town and assumed they would not realize the illegal operations they were doing. While the literal conflict is depicted by the class-action lawsuit of the 364 plaintiffs versus the multi-billion-dollar corporation, the real conflict was between power. The residents of Hinkley felt powerless and did not know where to turn. PG&E was portrayed as a power-hungry, emotionless corporation that simply wanted to take advantage of their power and the lack of the residents’ power. However, “the settlement awarded to the plaintiffs in the case of Hinkley vs. PG&E was the largest in a direct-action lawsuit in United States history” (2000). Clearly, the persistence of the legal team, as well as the narrative of the Hinkley residents paid off.

The narrative of Erin Brockovich and the victims of the chromium contamination was effective in portraying the Pacific Gas and Electric corporation as the villains. By using emotional connections, viewers of the movie are more likely to sympathize with the victims than the money-hungry corporate giant. The real-life Erin Brockovich claimed that the movie was “probably 98% accurate.” Even today, Brockovich continues to be a consumer advocate.

 


Bibliography

Brockovich, Erin, “The Movie” Brockovich.com

Erin Brockovich. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, and Marg Helgenberger. Universal Studios, 2000.

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