Erin Brockovich was one of two Steven Soderbergh films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2001, the other being Traffic (Germany/USA 2000). At the time, Erin Brockovich was the film that got the most attention, largely centered on Julia Roberts for her Oscar victory, which, in the public’s mind, instantly changed her from a walking pair of boobs to a real actress. (Of course, in reality she has always been a decent but unremarkable performer. Neither characterization has really ever been accurate.) Since, Traffic has become one of the most praised films of recent history while Erin Brockovich has largely sunk from view as a film, leaving only the mythology of Erin Brockovich the person, an oft-abused mythology that nonetheless exists for a reason.
There is a reason that Traffic has come to be held in significantly higher esteem: It’s just plain better. However, Erin Brockovich was not another example of Soderbergh’s mid-career slump like The Limey (USA 1999) and Out of Sight (USA 1998) before it. It doesn’t have the daring and visual imagination of Traffic or even Ocean’s Eleven (USA 2001), but it’s a nicely focused film that tells its story clearly and succinctly. While it’s rather conventional visually, it uses its conventionality properly, and that’s enough to make it a good, if unremarkable, film.
The point of this film is the power of personal connections. Erin is effective at “talking people into things,” as Ed puts it, because she’s able to convince people that she cares about them and thus establish a personal connection with them. George is able to take care of Erin’s children without them acting up at all because of his connection with them. The creepy guy who finally gives the firm the smoking gun connecting PG&E’s corporate headquarters with the groundwater contamination gives the information to Erin not because he feels bad about having participated in the poisoning and cover-up (though one wonders why he would have held on to the documents if not for guilt over the cover-up and a hope to one day provide it to some sort of investigation like this one), but because he feels like he can talk to her. It doesn’t provide an entirely rosy picture of the idea of personal connections, showing that they have limitations when they are used as justification for related but not exactly the same relationships (Shown by Erin’s and George’s relationship, which breaks down because it is based on George’s connection to her children, not a connection between them.) and can cause difficulties in understanding limitations (Shown by Erin’s arguments with Ed about bringing on a new, very powerful attorney to aid with the case and Erin’s needing advice from Ed about how to handle the employee who hands over the smoking gun.), so it is more an exploration of the topic than it is promoting something about them.
Visually, Soderbergh and cinematographer Elliot Davis set their template early and then very rarely varies from it: The film is largely shot with bright lighting, often with a rather conspicuously amber-heavy color palette. That palette emphasizes the small town “midwestern” sort of atmosphere the film is attempting to create—the bright colors of the movie world, the greys of city skylines and concrete, and the dim colors of the rainy northwest and southeast are completely absent, replaced by ambers, yellows, and browns that befit a rural landscape. It’s not overpowering, but it’s present. Most scenes involve a camera pivoting, following characters as they move along. It gives the entire film an illusion of action, which is necessary for a film that’s as much about talking and reading as this one is. It’s not terribly original—in fact the same trick is used for most legal films, most notably in A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner, USA 1992)—but it’s still effective.
The acting in the film is a bit uneven. Julia Roberts got a lot of attention for her performance, but she was in fact rather limited. When she’s playing the manipulative woman who uses her body to get into the records office and knows she can talk Ed into a raise as soon as he agrees to take the case, she’s fine—grinning just enough that we know she’s doing this intentionally without it being enough for everyone else to know. However, when she tries to get more emotional, Soderbergh covers her up. She has a mini-breakdown in front of George about how she’s going to survive after getting fired, but it is perhaps the longest shot in the movie, with her not even centered on the frame so that our attention is not entirely on her face. Other times, he uses the back lighting that he uses so often in the film but turns it up to a ridiculous level so that she is not even really visible. There’s a reason Soderbergh is covering her up: She’s just not good at those things, and it’s clear when you pay attention to what little we do get out of her. Meanwhile, Albert Finney, playing a somewhat downtrodden attorney with a heart of gold, is mostly excellent. He’s a trifle too uncomfortable with his clients personally, but that also plays well as opposition to the overly-informal Erin, so it’s a small complaint. Otherwise, he is charming and does a remarkable job of showing that Ed really does have his heart in the same place Erin does but feels limited from showing it. The only other significant role is Aaron Eckhart as George, and he frankly has no role to play, so there’s not much to say about it, in spite of his screen time.
As is often the case with Soderbergh’s films, David Holmes’s score adds plenty to the film. It’s subtle but remarkably appropriate from beginning to end, adding a little extra emotion where it’s needed and heightening the tension of the investigation scenes.
Overall, it’s a good film worth seeing, but nothing earth-shattering.