Summer Doc Series: Mann v. Ford

By  · Published on July 19th, 2011

The Ramapough Indians are sick. The Native American tribe has lived on land in northern New Jersey since before the Mayflower landed, but their beautiful acres – replete with green forests and rolling hills – are poisoning them.

In Mann v. Ford, directors Micah Fink and Maro Chermayeff explore the history of the people, splitting focus between the late 1960s when the Ford Motor Company began using the land as a dumping ground for its waste and near-current day when the people of the small town file suit against the company for gross negligence.

It’s fairly well-tread subject matter – the kind that seems to infect a ton of documentaries each year and even makes bigger noise when a movie like Erin Brockovich (a film some people featured here are far too aware of) hits theaters. There’s nothing wrong with telling the narrative of a mistreated group of people and their lawsuit, especially if it’s a story as compelling as this, but ultimately this documentary is average in almost every way.

From the opening screen where we learn that all of this took place 40 miles away from Manhattan, it’s clear that the filmmakers are keenly aware of creating context for the story. Not only could this happen in your own backyard, it did. Less than an hour’s drive from the largest city in the country, a small town was having toxic waste dumped into its neighborhoods on a nightly basis by one of the American icons of industry.

More so than that, Wayne Mann and the rest of the residents do a great deal to ground an otherwise jaw-dropping story in paint sludge-filled reality. They’re not a simple people, but they’re remote in their existence and even ostracized by other members of surrounding communities because of (what the movie purports to be) deep-seated racism. However, Mann (the person they chose as the lead plaintiff so that the court case would have a catchy name if it ever became iconic) holds himself in humble regard as a champion of his people and an honest individual who has seen and felt a lot of pain.

That pain might be the most severe element to the entire film. In particular, one scene where the lead lawyer strolls down a town street pointing at each of the houses while a resident explains who lived there, and what they died from or what will eventually kill them resonates with grim echoes. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer. Kidney Failure. Cancer. The human element reflected in the sky high statistics of illness in the community is enough to seal the deal on common sense, but the lawyers need science on their side if they plan on going against Ford.

To that end, the film is both frustrating and fascinating. It does a great job of displaying the process of bringing a class action suit of that magnitude to court – the man hours involved, the research, the depositions, the doctor questionnaires, the examination of dirt in households – and that overwhelming presence is enough to create even more context for this community’s problems.

Sadly, the film also loses its way here a bit. Vicki Gilliam is the lead attorney for the entire proceeding, but she carries herself as if she’s auditioning for Erin Brockovich 2. She’s certainly doing a wondrous job representing the injured and otherwise unaided, but she’s a grating presence that seems constantly like she’s selling her folksiness and personal bravery. With Mann’s calm and quiet, she stands out as being too slick and false. When the movie then does a brief (yet far too long) segment on her childhood, it loses the plot completely, and comes dangerously close to becoming Crusader for Justice: The Vicki Gilliam Story.

Ultimately, that’s a minor complaint, but the bigger problems come in the structure of the movie once the legal eagles get their work prepared. There’s just far too much information to deliver, and Fink and Chermayeff don’t seem to know what to do with it all. There’s the bulk of the lawsuit, the EPA mishandling that allowed Ford to run its own cleanup, the new EPA chief coming in, and the economic disaster which sees Ford on the brink of bankruptcy. After watching half an hour of deposition collecting, checking out Gilliam’s old cheerleading pictures, and listening in on legal meetings where redundant information is given by people hyper-aware of the camera, it was a travesty to find out that all this genuine drama was unfolding away from the documentary’s scope.

A much less tangible problem is that the tone is about as interesting as room temperature water. It all plays out in a very matter-of-fact way that would have suited it well had the pace been kept at a steady clip and more damning information had been revealed in a timely way. The kind of stuff that would leave eyebrows defying gravity is there for the taking, but it’s never utilized with much impact.

All in all, the real joy of this movie is watching the people of the community tell their stories. As heart-wrenching as watching friends and family bring birthday balloons to a child’s annual memorial service can be, this is where the soul of the story lives. When it diverges into legal jargon, it was like “heavy-handed” strapped on an iron glove. It also forgets who really matters in the situation, and that’s a shame. For information, it’s a great source, but as a movie, it’s just not very worthwhile.

Mann v. Ford premieres tonight (6/18) on HBO at 9pm EST/PST.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.