The Merits of ‘Crude’: Trial Lawyer Excesses on Display

The publicity machine has geared up for the umpteenth premiere of the anti-Chevron movie, “Crude,” this time at the E Street Cinema Friday just a few blocks down from NAM-HQ. Joe Berlinger, the director, will be at the premiere, perhaps proclaiming his objective distance as he did in this San Francisco Chronicle interview:

I have maintained throughout the entire production period and release an arms-length relationship with everybody involved, so that the film is treated as a piece of objective journalism—because it is.

Berlinger will be appearing at the DC showing with Luis Yanza, an Ecuadorian activist, and Steven Donziger, the American trial lawyer who is directing the lawsuit.

Now that’s objective distance!

To be fair to Berlinger and the movie, you learn a lot about the trial lawyer/activist/media combine that drives the litigation. He shows Donziger in full trial-lawyer mode, coaching Ecuadorian Indians to be more emotional when speaking to company stockholders, successfully selling Vanity Fair on doing a piece he can use to market the lawsuit (“Jungle Law“), and begging for more money from the Philadelphia law firm that’s subsidizing the litigation in the hopes of a big payout.

And there’s a scene in the movie where Donziger berates an old, shaky judge in Quito and then verbally attacks an attorney out in the hallway for the sake of the cameras. (See our earlier post.) It’s ugly bullying from Donziger, but you don’t really learn how cynical the abuse is until you read Peter Maass’ description of the encounter.

Maass is author of “Crude World,” a global maligning of the oil industry, with a chapter devoted to Donziger and the litigation. (Maass is also a sympathetic promoter of the movie.) In the book, Maass reports:

Donziger had known for months that Chevron had built a villa at the [army] base and agreed to give it to the military once the case ended. Donziger hadn’t opposed the deal because Chevron was not popular in Lago Agrio; he’d realized that the company’s lawyers would be safer with military protections. But with more than a dozen news-hungry journalists recording the moment, Donziger suspected that the time was right to accuse the military of being on the payroll of gringo oilmen. He was correct. The accusation made national headlines, and a little more than a month later the Ecuadorian military canceled all military contracts with oil firms and ordered Chevron off the base.

In other words, Donziger originally didn’t make an issue of legitimate security precautions because the opposing legal team faced potential harm. But when it served his purposes — when the cameras were there to record the mock outrage — he’d gladly renege on any understanding and put those lawyers in danger.

A truth-teller. Sure.

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