Genre: True Story
Premise: When a lawyer is able to defeat Chevron in Ecuadorian court to the tune of 19 billion dollars, Chevron hires the most lethal and dirtiest lawyer money can buy to get the verdict thrown out.
About: This script made last year’s Black List. I believe both Jay Carson and Matt Bai are political correspondents and that this is their first foray into the screenwriting world. They obtained the rights to the 2012 New Yorker article “Reversal of Fortune” by Patrick Radden Keefe, in order to write the script.
Writers: Jay Carson & Matt Bai
Details: 131 pages
It’s important to remember that there was a time in Hollywood when Eddie Murphy was making movies in fat suits that had characters communicating in fart-speak.
I’m sure during those dark hours that every development exec in Hollywood feared the next spec script to land on their desk. Who knows what kind of fat/bodily-function combination they might have to read that day. A talking fat dragon that spoke vomit? A fat grandma who spoke in burps? An insanely obese brain surgeon who spoke in that flapping-your-hand-in-your-underarm noise?
And yet, those days eventually passed.
I have to remind myself of this when I look down at my pile of scripts and see: True story, true story, true story, true story, true story, true story, true story. Sooner or later, Hollywood audiences will get bored of the true-story biopic combo and we’ll be able to read stuff that has some actual, you know, IMAGINATION.
Until then, true stories make up 8 out of the 10 scripts out there. It’s so hard to get excited to review these things cause they’re all the damn same. And that’s the writer’s fault. You guys should know that Hollywood is inundated with these things so if you’re going to write your own true story, it better damn well be different than all the others.
Let’s find out if Donziger is different from all the others.
Steven Donziger has just done the impossible. The 50-something legal ace went down to Ecuador and won the country a 19 billion dollar settlement against Chevron, after the oil giant spent the last 30 years turning the country into a chemical dump.
Donziger heads back home with plans to celebrate. But what he doesn’t know is that David O’Reilly, the CEO of Chevron, has zero plans to pay this dude. He goes out and hires Randy Mastro, a sick-ass laywer with a lethal history of doing whatever it takes to get the job done. O’Reilly wants Mastro to reverse the whole damn judgement.
Mastro shows why he’s nasty right off the bat. Whereas every other Chevron lawyer wants to exploit the impossible-to-prove technicalities of the case (was Chevron ever “really” in Ecuador?), Mastro wants to go after the man himself. If he can convince a judge that Donziger pulled off some bad things during the trial, he could get that verdict reversed.
Mastro keys in on a documentary that Donziger was shooting during the trial and is able to get his hands on all the footage, essentially giving him a behind-the-scenes look at every single thing Donziger did during the trial.
Mastro notices that a mysterious man keeps popping up – a dude named Carlos Bernstain – who may have been a liaison to Donziger pulling some back-door bribes with the Ecuadorian judge. Mastro uses that tidbit to get a judge to enact a Gestapo-esque raid of Donziger’s home, where every one of his family’s computers is taken.
Meanwhile, Donziger refuses to give in. He uses some legal tricks of his own, convincing every country in the world who works with Chevron that, if it meant taking their cash, Chevron would not respect their laws. This causes Chevron stock to plunge and the race for that 19 billion is on. But can Donziger keep it up? Can anyone really defeat a 200 billion dollar company? My man Donny Z’s about to find out.
Make no mistake. This is a documentary. I mean, it’s an article. But it’s really a documentary.
And only certain documentaries can be turned into movies. This is not one of those documentaries. There’s too much legal mumbo-jumbo. There’s too much backstory. The story plays out over too long of a time. These are huge red flags when you’re thinking about adapting an idea into a feature.
I’ll give you an example. We learn the lawsuit is only half against Chevron. The other half is against Texaco, who was the original company that destroyed Ecuador. Chevron only came in later, buying up Texaco, and is being sued for not cleaning up Texaco’s mess. There are a ton of boring details like this that the script is forced to cover.
Since documentaries are, basically, one continuous stream of exposition, nuanced details like the above work great in them. But in feature films, exposition is the enemy. In an ideal script, exposition would be less than 5%. Here, it’s like 30-40% And it’s hard for a movie to gain any momentum when the exposition takes up that amount of time.
Truth be told, exposition is one of the things I hate most about these stories. So much needs to be conveyed before we can start dramatizing the story (that’s a fancy way of saying: before the story can actually be entertaining). And, indeed, I was half-asleep during the first 40 pages of this. It was maddeningly boring.
The script doesn’t pick up until Mastro arrives. It’s strange because the script is titled, “Donziger,” but it should really be titled “Mastro.” He’s the only interesting thing about this. His nasty tactics to reverse this settlement were the only fun the script had. You always wanted to see how nasty he was going to get next.
Also, I’m a big fan of holier than though villains, guys who do terrible things but market it like they’re angels doing the world a favor. I loved how Mastro was destroying a man who was trying to help a country recover from being turned into a cancer-breeding chemical dump, yet he could go on about how his actions were not only moral, but essential to keeping the sanctity of law in tact. At one point he makes an argument that what Donziger did was actually worse than what Chevron did (for those keeping count, Chevron killed thousands of people in Ecuador and left many more with cancer).
Unfortunately, Donziger the character doesn’t become interesting until the last third of the screenplay, when his secrets start to be exposed, and he begins to lose his family due to putting the case before them. I found all of that to be quite good, but giving me a vanilla character for 90 pages and turning him chocolate for the last 40 isn’t going to cut it.
Ultimately, Donziger the script has some good stuff going for it. It explores the moral ground between good and bad and reminds us that gray will always be where the majority of us reside. But I have to give the script a “wasn’t for me.” It’s probably closer to “worth the read” but there are so many scripts in this genre right now that if you can’t give me a true story that stands out in some way, it’s hard to endorse it, well-written or not. One of your jobs as a screenwriter is to be original. Unfortunately, Donziger fails that test badly.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I always love when characters make a point via a good analogy. It’s just a fun way to convey what would otherwise be boring dialogue. So in one of Mastro’s first scenes, he needs to convince O’Reilly to do things his way. This is what he says…
MASTRO: You know why the Yankees win so much?
O’REILLY: Money. Everyone knows that.
MASTRO: It’s what they do with the money. They buy left handed hitting and left handed pitchers. Why?
O’REILLY: Well, that stadium—
MASTRO: Has a short porch in right field. Exactly. They build their team around that field. Always have. Babe Ruth. Reggie Jackson. Whitey Ford.
MASTRO: When you go into Yankee Stadium, the game is rigged. You think you’re playing the same game as the Yankees, but you’re not. It’s their field and they always have the advantage.
O’REILLY: So you need some lefties of your own, right?
MASTRO: (shaking his head) It’s impractical. You’ll never build as good a team for that ballpark as they have. You want to beat the Yankees, your best shot is to get them in another venue… say Fenway where right field goes on forever.
O’Reilly nods — he gets it.