“Film Review: Libby’s Liability”
Montana Magazine, November/December 2004
by Les Benedict
Montanans like to believe our state is “The Last Best Place,” but when Libby’s environmental tragedy is considered, that idea quickly falls by the wayside. As revealed in a new documentary by Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis of High Plains Films, this small town has been simmering in a cauldron of industrial pollution, corporate greed, criminal negligence, governmental bureaucracy, and life-threatening health issues that began nearly a half century ago. Libby, Montana weighs in at just over two hours, covers a complex community problem, and is, ultimately, dead serious. This film was chosen as a finalist in the Documentary Award Category at the 2004 IFP/NY Market and Conference.
Libby opens with a campy animated sequence that reveals itself to be a vintage Bureau of Mines film explaining how the earth’s primeval evolutionary forces created asbestos. From there, the film meanders into early Chamber-of-Commerce footage of the hamlet of Libby, delineating the two industrial forces that caused it to exist: logging and mining vermiculite (which we later learn contains a particularly deadly form of asbestos).
Soon the W. R. Grace Corporation’s vermiculite plant takes center stage as a major force in Libby, offering high paying jobs and support for the town’s infrastructure. At the same time, a number of the film’s key characters are introduced in a technique the High Plains filmmakers have honed to perfection over the past decade no narration, just insightful editing of unscripted comments. With this artful interweaving of the town’s economic history and the personal life (and death) stories of various individuals, the film picks up a compelling rhythm, inexorably pulling you along.
In the late 1990s, a federal government’s EPA emergency response unit gets involved. Their quirky and charismatic on-site leader calls it the worst case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in U.S. history. In the meantime, the W. R. Grace Corporation conveniently declares bankruptcy. In the final inning, Montana’s Governor Judy Martz, flanked by concerned Montana politicians, is called upon to make a difficult decision about the designation of the town as a superfund site. Libby, Montana is a big film about a big problem, well balanced and well told.
Les Benedict wrote, directed, photographed, and edited educational films, documentaries, and commercials for fifteen years. He has been the film programmer at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena since 1985.