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Crude Movie Review

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Each year, there are documentaries of all kinds: funny, emotionally personal, political, anti-business, environmental and more. The few that really hit home, however, are the ones that reveal massive tragedies few in the United States know about. Crude is one of those documentaries.

In Crude, filmmaker Joe Berlinger ventures into the Ecuadorian Amazon to reveal the travesties that have been inflicted against the indigenous people who live there at the hands of oil companies, namely Chevron-Texaco. The movie is a sweeping, behind-the-trenches observation of the class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of tens of thousands of individuals, against the company for contaminating the area's land and water that has resulted in huge spikes in cancer, leukemia, severe skin problems and other serious illnesses.

Crude works on multiple levels. It's David against Goliath, the tale of a young Ecuadorian lawyer - fresh out of the law school - who is given the reins of the mammoth case, presumably worth tens of billions of dollars, and becomes committed to fighting against the massive, unlimited legal force of Chevron. Even though the lawyer is aided by a more experienced team of U.S. lawyers, the battle is so lopsided it's amazing it ever got started.

But that just speaks to the travesty of the affair. It's clear that the people who live in the area where Texaco's operations were conducted have suffered for decades; the evidence is everywhere, from the countless babies who are born into pain to the toxic sludge that can be found inches under the soil.

Despite this evidence, where Crude really succeeds is that it doesn't take a fist-waving approach to the trial. The movie is clearly biased in the plaintiff's favor - and it would be hard for it to not be - as we get to see the plaintiff lawyers strategize, prepare for the trial and more, but it doesn't just gloss over facts that oppose its stance. Most interesting is the fact that Chevron isn't defenseless in the wake of so much misery; it's clear that the people have been wronged, but by whom isn't so clear. Was Texaco (which was purchased by Chevron following their pullout from the country) the company responsible for poisoning the lands, or was it Petroecuador, the state-run oil company that took over Texaco's operations? How can it be proved that the sludge belongs to one company and not the other? These are questions the defense, and the film, raise.

Crude has few pitfalls, if any. Berlinger tackles a myriad of issues and presents the complications in a simple, straightforward matter. The case and circumstances are so rich that the documentary moves at nearly a running pace, but Berlinger never gets overly hot about an issue to cause him to sidetrack into some tangent. Crude takes a very level-headed approach to the story at hand and the result is one of the best documentaries of the year.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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