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Case Number 18462: Small Claims Court

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First Run Features // 2009 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // March 6th, 2010

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All Rise...

Crude is also the title of Judge Victor Valdivia's autobiography, but that's because he's coarse and ill-mannered.

The Charge

The real price of oil.

The Case

Crude is the most frustrating kind of documentary to assess: one that asks most, but not all, of the right questions. Director Joe Berlinger has made some of the most important and acclaimed documentaries of the last 20 years, starting with Brother's Keeper (1992) and continuing through Paradise Lost (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), so it's natural to expect that Crude will be another landmark like those films. Sad to say, Crude isn't in the same league as his previous work. There is a lot to admire in it and it certainly does tell a story that needs to be told, but it also suffers from some gaping holes that should have been filled.

First, it's important to understand the story that Crude tells. In the mid-1960s, American oil company Texaco began a drilling a series of oil wells throughout Ecuador, beginning a process that would leave substantial amounts of ecological damage to many villages in the Amazon. Though they eventually left in the early 1990s, the aftereffects of their drilling remain to this day in increased cancer rates for nearby villagers, polluted and unusable ground water, and giant pits of leftover chemicals and unusable crude left without any cleanup. Texaco claimed it had left the Ecuadorian sites fully cleaned up, but almost immediately, Ecuadorian citizens filed a class-action lawsuit against Texaco that the company set about delaying and obstructing. In 2001, Texaco was absorbed by Chevron, which only made the delays and obstructions worse. The lawsuit had been going on for 13 years at the time of the film. As of this writing, there have been more delays that will probably make it last at least a decade longer.

The film gives some background on the suit, but its focus is on the trial itself. After much legal wrangling by Texaco and Chevron, the trial was moved to Ecuador, apparently in the hope that it would make trial easier for the media to ignore. Ironically enough, that actually makes it far more vivid for Berlinger's cameras. As part of the trial, the judge demands that the entire proceeding be held outside, near the affected areas, and the visuals of a group of lawyers, witnesses, soldiers, spectators, and judge all sitting under a tent examining contaminated soil samples is far more illustrative than a stuffy trial in a U.S. courtroom would have been.

The trial also allows Berlinger to examine both sides of this issue. The plaintiffs are led by lawyer Pablo Fajardo, a poor Ecuadorian who worked his way through law school and has become a fierce advocate. He is accompanied by Steven Donziger, the lead attorney for a large U.S. law firm who serves as his interpreter and adviser, consulting on everything from how to deal with the media to how to handle American legal maneuvers. Though Berlinger demonstrates their commitment to the issue, he doesn't shy away from revealing that Donziger's law firm stands to profit considerably from any settlement, coloring his motives slightly. Chevron employees are also interviewed and Berlinger doesn't go for the easy trap of attacking them on-camera, instead choosing to run their statements without comment and letting viewers decide if they're credible. Of course, there are also lots of gut-wrenching stories of Ecuadorians, most of them poor indigenous villagers, suffering health problems that they attribute to the pollution left by Texaco's drilling. These are sometimes painful to watch, but they are necessary to understand why this story is so important. According to the Ecuadorian government, an area the size of the state of Rhode Island was left decrepit with pollution, so when various participants cite this as the biggest class action lawsuit in the oil industry's history, they're not exaggerating.

At the same time, though Berlinger paints a clear picture of how the lawsuit began and how it's being argued, there are still some important questions left unanswered. Chevron's defense is twofold: that the pollution levels aren't nearly high enough to cause physical effects and that the majority of the pollution was caused by Ecuador's state-owned oil company. Strangely, only once in the film are any of these defenses addressed, and then only briefly, when one site is identified as being the sole province of Texaco. It would have made perfect sense to explain what the plaintiffs' response to these allegations is. Does Texaco have any legal room to completely disavow all responsibility? Is there evidence that proves how much exposure to these chemicals causes the ill effects seen in the villagers? We are never told at any time. Berlinger asserts in the interviews he includes on this disc that his goal wasn't necessarily to examine the case from a legal point of view, only a moral one, so Crude does demonstrate that people are indeed suffering because of the decisions Texaco made, but that's not the same as proving that Texaco/Chevron is legally accountable. It's not that the film should pick apart these questions in minute detail, but these issues deserve far more attention than Berlinger gives them, particularly since the film devotes far too much time to an ultimately irrelevant segment where Fajardo attends an environmental festival and meets Sting.

In fact, it's the film's later sections that are less successful. At Donziger's instigation, the plaintiffs agree to court a celebrity spokesperson for their cause and manage to get Trudie Styler, Sting's wife, to visit and give several interviews. This is an interesting segment on how "sincere" celebrity generosity involves a considerable amount of negotiation (Donziger even coaches Styler on how to fashion her sound bites) but it detracts from the previous part of the film. Instead of being about the case, the film suddenly becomes about PR tactics. This whole section also shortchanges several important themes. Another idea that Berlinger claims he wanted to explore was that Texaco's exploitation was tied in to the general mistreatment of indigenous people throughout the Americas (most of the affected villagers are Ecuadorian Indians), but he never actually even really mentions this at any point. Does the Ecuadorian government deserve part of the blame in essentially writing off these indigenous people so that Texaco would bring lucrative contracts to benefit those in power at the time? This is another interesting question that is never addressed anywhere in the film. It's omissions like these that make Crude much less valuable than it could have been.

The DVD includes a copious amount of supplemental material, but sadly, these additions do not fill in these holes. There are several deleted scenes (18:55) that are interesting to watch, although most of these are more related to the actual mechanics of the trial itself rather than the issues the trial deals with. The featurette titled "2009 Sundance Film Festival World Premiere" (16:05) includes a brief spoken introduction by Berlinger just before Crude was screened to the festival audience, but also includes the post-film question-and-answer period in which Berlinger was joined by Fajardo, Donziger, and Styler. The briefer featurette "Sundance Channel MyPremiere" (2:01) is an amusing but slight interview with Berlinger as he prepares for the premiere. "Ecuador Premiere" (4:15) is similar but much shorter to the Sundance premiere, although it's interesting to see the hometown Ecuadorian audience respond to Fajardo. There's also "Press Junket with Joe Berlinger and Trudie Styler" (11:20), an interview that isn't really as useful since Berlinger and Styler repeat much of what they say elsewhere on the DVD. Finally, the disc is rounded out by some galleries, text extras, the film's trailer (2:34) and "Song of the Cofan" (4:12), a song sung by an indigenous woman about the crisis enveloping her village. The anamorphic transfer and 5.1 remix are both satisfactory, although the surrounds are only used in the sequence involving the festival, so the stereo mix would do just as well for most of the film.

Ultimately, Crude is worth a look, primarily because it tells an important story without sinking to cheap agitprop or Michael Moore-esque gimmicks. Unfortunately, it's hard to recommend the film wholeheartedly because it leaves some crucial questions unanswered in favor of focusing on scenes that are mildly diverting but not that important. Crude could have stood as the definitive account of this story but instead ends up as just a decent start.

The Verdict

Guilty of not fully telling the story it set out to do.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 70

Perp Profile

Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• Featurettes
• Photo Gallery
• Trailer
• Text Extras


• IMDb
• Official Site

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