The battle over water rights has long been a source for cinematic storylines, from John Wayne westerns like Angel and the Badman to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Like Polanski’s classic, writer/director Damian Lee’s latest thriller, A Dark Truth, is also inspired by actual conflicts—with Lee moving beyond California’s Owens Valley to a more global scale, spotlighting underhanded corporate dealings in South America and Africa. Unfortunately, any similarities end there.
In his research, Lee learned of South American water wars that pitted big business and governments against local communities. Purportedly, farmers couldn’t even collect rainwater because all water belonged to conglomerates. Soldiers were sent in to protect the government interests (aka profits) with sometimes violent outcomes. It’s a fascinating issue, but A Dark Truth’s preachiness ultimately prevents it from being a successful indictment of politics or corporations.
Andy Garcia plays Jack Begosian, a former CIA operative with a less-than-admirable past in Central and South America. He’s been trying to purge his past sins by hosting a political talk radio show in Toronto. Snippets from Begosian’s talk shows serve as voiceovers throughout the film, as if the onscreen moralizing wasn’t enough. (The show’s radio callers are also distracting because most of them are too calm, reasonable and articulate for any political talk show.)
Begosian gets an offer at redemption when socialite Morgan Swinton (Deborah Kara Unger)—a major shareholder in her family’s water company—gets an ugly taste of the truth that jars her out of a substance-addled existence. She asks Begosian to investigate Clearbec, run by her brother, Bruce (Sons of Anarchy’s Kim Coates), finding what role the company played in an Ecuadorian village’s typhus outbreak and the killing of villagers who tried to escape.
She pays Begosian a hefty fee to find and extricate Francisco Francis (Forest Whitaker), an American anthropologist and ecologist turned eco-warrior. He has the evidence against Clearbec, and can help scuttle a pending billion-dollar deal for South African water rights. Though he’s hesitant to leave his family behind, Jack takes the job because he’s crossed paths with Francis before and feels the need to undo old wrongs.
A Dark Truth has moments of taut suspense, but some of the shoot-’em-up scenes are hardly believable. Its biggest downfall is the over-earnestness of the leading characters. Begosian and Francis are both somber, bleeding-heart liberals who resort to violence to further their cause(s), leading to nearly one-dimensional performances by Garcia and Whitaker.
The film’s supporting female characters, including Mia Francis (Eva Longoria) and Karen Begosian (Lara Daans), fare no better in Lee’s script, having little to do but support their husbands and look worried as the menfolk head into danger.
In the end, A Dark Truth’s sermonizing affects many of the film’s antagonists as well, with even a hitman having a change of heart and Bruce turning from a cutthroat capitalist to a capitalist with a conscience as he struggles between money, power and the right thing to do. Coates’ portrayal is one of the more compelling performances in the film.
While not a terrible film, A Dark Truth squanders its political potential by boiling down the complex global issue of water rights to good guys vs. bad guys, the type of oversimplified dichotomy much better suited for a John Wayne western.
Director: Damian Lee
Writer: Damian Lee
Starring: Andy Garcia, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates, Deborah Kara Unger, Eva Longoria
Release Date: Jan. 4, 2013