Crude -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

If you like stories with real-life good guys and bad guys, then "Crude" is for you. Joe Berlinger's latest documentary investigates the ongoing case environmentalists dub the "Amazon Cherynobyl," the horrifying, systematic destruction of a land and culture after the arrival of a multinational oil company.

Berlinger's reputation as a skilled filmmaker-journalist and the topical subject matter make "Crude" must-viewing for those who care about the planet. It wouldn't be surprising if the film has an impact on the legal wrangling in the courts, let alone popular knowledge and opinion.

Berlinger, who directed "Brother's Keeper," "Paradise Lost" and "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," engages the viewer with the devastating effects of pollution on the rain forests of Ecuador by the oil company Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001.

Berlinger covers both sides of the court case, in which oil field laborer-turned-lawyer Pablo Fajardo alleges decades-long ecological terrorism by Chevron (whose defendants claim the charges are fabricated to line the pockets of the environmentalist legal team).

It becomes obvious where Berlinger stands, which is understandable because it would have been naive for the director to try to stay neutral or artificially balance his inquiry (as the average oil company-sponsored mainstream TV news show would do). Still, thanks to Berlinger's tenacious, comprehensive, well-researched approach, it would be unwise to dismiss him as a mere muckraker.

If anything, Chevron damns itself through the interviews with the company's arrogant spokespeople. By contrast, the charismatic Fajardo becomes an actual media star (winning a CNN "Hero" award and landing in a spread in Vanity Fair) while also emerging as "Crude's" most winning onscreen player.

(At one telling point, Fajardo looks at a photo of himself in the VF piece and shakes his head, regretting that the article does not instead include a picture of a sickened Ecuadorean family.)

Berlinger could have given us a bit more of Fajardo's remarkable story, going from manual worker to lead attorney in this international case. It also is unfortunate the subtitles for viewers are small and often hard to read, making the English-language speakers more accessible (including the plaintiffs' consultant, American Steven Donziger, who appears frequently). And, though it is not the director's fault, we miss much of the central courtroom action because it has been blocked from view.

But minor flaws and all, "Crude" represents a crucial document as much as any evidence put forward in the courtroom itself.

Opened: Wednesday, Sept. 9 (First Run Features)
Production: Entendre Films, Netflix/Red Envelope Entertainment,, Third Eye Motion Picture Co.
Director: Joe Berlinger
Producers: Joe Berlinger, Michael Bonfiglio, J.R. Deleon, Richard Stratton
Executive Producers: Liesl Copland, Ted Sarandos, Jon Kamen, Robert Friedman, Frank Scherma, Justin Wilkes
Director of photography: Juan Diego Perez
Editor: Alyse Ardell Spiegel
Sound: Edward L. O'Connor, Leon Felipe Troya
No rating, 104 minutes