Erin Brockovich at 20: how a grim true story became a glossy star vehicle

Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning 2000 drama gave Julia Roberts one of her greatest roles and found levity in a dark subject

In 1989, Steven Soderbergh changed the independent film business forever with sex, lies and videotape. A decade later, he conquered Hollywood. But it’s important not to yadda yadda away the years in between, when his sophomore slump (1991’s Kafka) extended to a junior slump (1993’s King of the Hill) and a senior slump (1995’s The Underneath), and he seemed lost in a wilderness of his own design. Arguments can (and should) be made for his work during this period – the Depression-era drama King of the Hill is one of his best films, and all three are varied and conceptually adventurous – but Soderbergh himself felt so discombobulated by failure that he wrote, directed, starred, edited and photographed 1996’s Schizopolis, an experimental doodle, just to give his career a hard reboot. Two years later, he made the superb Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight for Universal Pictures, and he was off and running again.

When Soderbergh started 2000 with Erin Brockovich and ended it with Traffic, both earning him best director nominations at the Oscars (he won for the latter), it almost felt calculated, like he had made a bet with himself that he could pivot from indie iconoclast to commercial juggernaut over the course of a four-year period. As many of the era’s biggest stars – George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon chief among them – strolled out to the Fountains of the Bellagio in Las Vegas at the end of his Ocean’s Eleven remake in 2001, it was the capper to a time when Soderbergh had cracked the code, squaring his sensibility with mass-market entertainment.

Soderbergh would go back to the lab soon afterwards with the digital experimentation of Full Frontal and Bubble, and studio films such as Solaris and Ocean’s Twelve, which were much further afield. Now 20 years old, Erin Brockovich stands out as the closest Soderbergh has gotten to making an old-fashioned star vehicle, one that’s issue-driven to a point, but more about harnessing the power of Julia Roberts, who dominates every scene she’s in – which happens to be almost all of them. Soderbergh’s wizardry with the environmental procedural owes much to All the President’s Men, a touchstone for many of his films about how complex systems work, from the drug war (Traffic) to viral outbreaks (Contagion) to financial fraud (The Laundromat). But he’s also doing for Roberts what Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore did for Ellen Burstyn or Norma Rae did for Sally Field, giving her a platform to be her best and biggest self.

Albert Finney and Julia Roberts in Erin Broockvich
Albert Finney and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. Photograph: Allstar/Universal

Working through a succession of wardrobe changes to rival a pop star’s arena show, Roberts plays Brockovich as a casual-Friday provocateur who uses plunging necklines and miniskirts to terrorize her adversaries. And if that’s not enough to intimidate them, she backs it up with salty invective. As the film opens, she’s an unemployed single mother of three who’s trying to fake her way through job interviews, confident enough that her work ethic and people skills will allow her to learn on the fly. When her attempt to get legal restitution for a car accident doesn’t pan out, Brockovich simply turns up at her lawyer’s office and bullies him into giving her a job.

The bulk of Erin Brockovich is about the class-action lawsuit she and the lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), bring against Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for contaminating the groundwater of its plant in Hinkley, California, with a chemical called hexavalent chromium. Through her initiative and drive, she picks up a client base plagued by medical problems and shimmies her way through the county water board offices to find the damning files to prove that PG&E acted with deliberate malice. She also dates a biker (Aaron Eckhart) next door. His name is George. He watches her kids.

As written by Susannah Grant, Erin Brockovich seems deliberate in turning George into the type of perfunctory romantic partner that’s common in films where men are out doing something important and the women are left to complain about their absence. Grant and Roberts turn Brockovich into the type of person who has been wronged so often that she’s always spoiling for a fight, especially when she identifies other underdogs in need of an ally. It takes time for Masry to see that this steamroller can be of use to him – at least when he’s not being flattened by it – and the two become a wonderful pair, the modest old legal hand and brassy go-getter who shakes him out of complacency.

Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich
Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. Photograph: Allstar/Universal

With this film and Traffic the same year, Soderbergh would prove to be a master at connecting the dots without making it seem like an information dump. In Erin Brockovich, Roberts is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down: as we learn about different types of chromium, the range of medical abnormalities, and the ins and outs of real estate documents and toxicology reports, she’s ripping some poor suit with invective or using her body as a diversionary tactic. It never feels difficult to sort through the facts – and, more crucially, the emotional stakes of the case are never lost in them. That’s Brockovich’s gift. And that’s Roberts’, too.

The lightness of Erin Brockovich is the reason why one of the biggest hits of Soderbergh’s career, topped only by Ocean’s Eleven the next year, succeeds but it does rob the film of a more serious sense of purpose. Soderbergh cares about the harms of corporate malfeasance, as he has proved multiple times since, but this isn’t an angry film like Todd Haynes’ recent Dark Waters, which views a similar case of water-poisoning as a much darker statement on how government and big business treats ordinary people. It says something that Erin Brockovich ends with its hero getting a $2m bonus check – hers is the most important triumph, and the justice she gets for hundreds of others is merely the vessel for it. Anger is a burden that Brockovich alleviates for her clients, and all that’s left is the winning.


Scott Tobias

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Erin Brockovich: jury out on the details

Alex von Tunzelmann: Steven Soderbergh's enjoyable drama never quite makes it to the courtroom – and with certain facts and outcomes still in doubt, you can see why

Alex von Tunzelmann

28, Feb, 2013 @2:49 PM

Erin Brockovich

Peter Bradshaw: It is a laudable tale, but it often seems as though it's on autopilot... And, unlike Michael Mann's The Insider, there is never a sense of real risk or real dange

Peter Bradshaw

06, Apr, 2000 @11:36 PM

Article image
Julia Roberts’s 20 best films – ranked!
Ahead of the release of Ticket to Paradise, a romcom co-starring George Clooney, we rate the Pretty Woman’s finest work, from Steel Magnolias to My Best Friend’s Wedding

Anne Billson

01, Sep, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
From Out of Sight to Magic Mike: our writers pick their favourite Soderbergh films
With the release of Magic Mike’s Last Dance, Guardian writers argue why their Steven Soderbergh pick is better than the rest

Scott Tobias, Radheyan Simonpillai, Veronica Esposito, Andrew Pulver, Jesse Hassenger, Adrian Horton, Benjamin Lee, Lisa Wong Macabasco and Lauren Mechling

08, Feb, 2023 @5:01 PM

Article image
Pretty Woman at 30: conservatism, materialism and glowing star power
Garry Marshall’s hit romantic comedy might have some questionable sexual politics but Julia Roberts remains a magnetic breakout

Scott Tobias

23, Mar, 2020 @2:38 PM

Article image
Meryl Streep to star in Steven Soderbergh's Panama Papers thriller
The Oscar winner is set to take on the lead in The Laundromat, a fact-based film alongside Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas

Guardian staff

14, May, 2018 @4:26 PM

Article image
Albert Finney, legendary star of Tom Jones and Miller's Crossing, dies aged 82
Celebrated actor who rose to fame in the ‘kitchen sink’ era before evolving into one of the screen greats of the postwar period, has died

Andrew Pulver

08, Feb, 2019 @6:01 PM

Friedkin's military thriller topples Erin Brockovich from top of box office

Exorcist director William Friedkin's military thriller Rules of Engagement has brought to a halt the three-week winning streak enjoyed by Julia Roberts' Erin Brockovich. Studio estimates yesterday put the film at the top of the US box office on its opening weekend.

10, Apr, 2000 @8:58 AM

Article image
Pitt! Aniston! Roberts! Freeman! Was this the starriest Zoom ever?
A live-reading of 80s teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High brought together an array of big names with a surprising standout

Charles Bramesco

18, Sep, 2020 @3:50 PM

Article image
Flickonomics: eight movies that teach us how money works

From The Full Monty to The Matrix, films have a lot to tell us about economics. For instance, Mary Poppins taught us banking confidence, and Some Like it Hot lays bare the trouble with capitalism

Ha-Joon Chang, Paul Mason, Vicky Pryce and Noreena Hertz

15, Jul, 2014 @3:55 PM