Erin Brockovich: jury out on the details

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

Erin Brockovich (2000)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Entertainment grade: B–
History grade: B

Erin Brockovich became famous in 1993 when she helped residents of Hinkley, California, to claim a record-breaking $333m settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric after groundwater was contaminated. She had no legal training.


Erin Brockovich
Photograph: PR

Single mother of three Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is already struggling to make ends meet when she is involved in a car accident. She sues to cover the medical expenses, but loses. Furious with her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), she demands that he give her a job. He caves in. Amazingly, this is true. Soon, she's strutting around the law firm of Masry and Vititoe, refusing to be shamed out of wearing skintight and occasionally transparent clothing with big heels and bigger hair. "As long as I have one ass instead of two, I'll wear what I like," she snaps at the hapless Masry when he suggests rethinking her wardrobe, adding: "You might wanna rethink those ties."


Erin Brockovich
Photograph: PR

The real Brockovich initially hoped Goldie Hawn might play her, though Masry suggested Roseanne Barr. "All kidding aside kid," she remembered him saying, "I don't care who it is as long as it's not Julia Roberts. She has no tits and no foul mouth, so it wouldn't work." In the event, Roberts skimped on neither. Brockovich was apparently thrilled with her performance – as were the Academy, who gave her an Oscar for it. (The real Brockovich also appears fleetingly in the film, playing a waitress called – of course – Julia.)


Erin Brockovich
Photograph: PR

Doing some administrative work on a pro bono property case, Brockovich begins to notice some strange factors around Pacific Gas and Electric's offers to homeowners in Hinkley. She investigates, and finds that the groundwater in the area may have been contaminated with hexavalent chromium. This, she thinks, must be connected to the various and horrible diseases suffered by Hinkley residents. Some scientists have taken issue with the movie for making this seem like an open and shut case, though there does appear to be room for questions.


Erin Brockovich
Photograph: Columbia Pictures/PR

Brockovich hooks up with her next-door neighbour, an adorable biker called George (Aaron Eckhart). George is big and tough and manly, and loves nothing more than to spend all day caring for Brockovich's children. Even so, she's been through so much by this point that she resists getting involved. "Are you going to be something else I have to survive?" she asks him in a rare moment of vulnerability. "Because I'll tell you the truth: I'm not up to it." In real life, George was called Jorge Halaby. When the film came out, Brockovich and Masry were threatened with a smear. Unless they paid $310,000, the media would be told – falsely – that they had had an affair and she was a bad mother. Halaby was arrested, along with Brockovich's ex-husband Shawn Brown. The charges against them were dropped, though attorney John Jeffrey Reiner was convicted of extortion, suspended and later disbarred. In real life, as in the movie, Brockovich survived her biker and is still going strong.


Erin Brockovich
Photograph: PR

According to Brockovich herself, "the movie was true and probably 98% accurate". She has not been specific about what constitutes the 2% inaccuracy, though elsewhere she has said that she was not, as the film claims, Miss Wichita. She was Miss Pacific Coast. Because she was originally from Kansas, director Steven Soderbergh apparently thought that it would be "cute" if she had won her beauty contest in her home state. Most historians would be more concerned about the film's depiction of the Hinkley case having a completely rosy outcome. The only plaintiffs shown are relieved and delighted to receive their settlements. In real life, a few of them appear to have taken different views.


Excellent performances, especially from Roberts and Finney, make Erin Brockovich an enjoyable never-quite-makes-it-to-the-courtroom drama – but the facts and outcomes of this case remain controversial.


Alex von Tunzelmann

The GuardianTramp

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