January 3, 2008
by Shaun Huston
Libby, Montana documents a tragic but familiar turn of events wherein an American town entrusts its dreams of freedom and opportunity to a corporation only to find itself betrayed for profit. As in the dramatized Erin Brockovich (2000) and A Civil Action (1998), which shares W.R. Grace as a villain with Libby, Montana, the betrayal here is knowing and conscious, as corporate figures, with the silent assent of government agencies, deliberately hide or obscure the deadly consequences of their business for townsfolk who have been led to believe that all is well with their world. The familiarity of this narrative does not detract from its tragedy, and in the case of Libby, Montana, the immediacy and sincerity of the documentary form re-enlivens the story.
In the town of Libby, the issue is asbestos poisoning, a product of vermiculite mining. Mining of this material began in 1919 with the Zonolite Company. W.R. Grace bought the company in 1963. In the decades that followed, essentially the entire town of Libby was exposed to contamination by asbestos. The film highlights the impossibility of removing the dust generated by vermiculite mining from the clothes of workers, the ubiquity of the material in local houses and yards, and even the use of vermiculite mine tailings to build school and community recreational facilities.
From the very beginning, W.R. Grace executives were aware of the dangers of exposure to asbestos from vermiculite mining, but chose to cover up this knowledge by putting on a show of looking after the health of their workers with regular check ups, provision of marginally effective safety equipment, and active participation in the community. State and federal agencies cited the company for safety issues, but did not make these citations widely known.
Co-directors, producers, and editors Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis defer this main story until about 16 minutes into the film. The pre-title sequences hints at the asbestos problem by beginning Libby, Montana with a clip from a ‘50s or early ‘60s industrial film about the wonders of vermiculite and then cutting to archival footage of town residents enjoying the good life while the voices of current residents talk about how great they thought their town was. The past tense is important here, because the archival material is intercut with brief, present-day images of crosses being hammered into the ground. At this point, viewers are not yet precisely aware of what’s happening, but the juxtaposition of the optimism of the industrial film with the rueful nostalgia and cross hammering creates a feeling of paradise lost that informs the rest of the movie.
The immediate post-title section of the film provides a quick portrait of Libby, emphasizing, for better and worse, its small town character, its development as a logging town, and its spectacular natural setting. Aesthetically, this sequence is marred by often jarring differences between darker, sometimes muddy, archival footage, and clear, bright original video. Narratively, however, it subtly suggests the role that the town’s self-identity as a community of loggers may have played in masking or deferring the question of mining health and safety, as one might imagine “environmentalists” are not terribly popular in Libby, and gently introduces the asbestos story with a slight cough from Les Skramstad, one of Gunn Carr’s and Hawes-Davis’ primary informants.
The balance of the film’s first hour is devoted to outlining and introducing the basics of the vermiculite-asbestos connection. The filmmakers rely heavily on former workers Skramstad and Bob Wilkins and on Gayla Benefield, whose entire family has been devastated by asbestos exposure, in detailing the consequences of W.R. Grace’s negligence. Grace is represented in the film by local manager Earl Lovick. Lovick died from respiratory problems in 1999, an irony noted by Bob Wilkins, but left behind video from a 1996 deposition. That deposition ably demonstrates the ways in which Grace executives carefully crafted their response to knowledge of the dangers of vermiculite mining so as to give the appearance of proper action, but not the substance.
Gunn Carr and Hawes-Davis also use this section of the film to suggest that Grace executives were enabled in their thoughtlessness by a political culture that overvalues economic growth and undervalues government action in the public interest. Serendipitously for Libby, Montana’s narrative, Ronald Reagan, as President, commissioned J. Pete Grace, CEO of W.R. Grace, to conduct a study on reducing government. Within the context of Libby, Montana, this is clearly a case of putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. More importantly, it foregrounds subsequent political debates over whether Libby should be listed as a federal Superfund site wherein economic development, cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and skepticism towards government assume as large a role as the town’s public health and environmental conditions.
Libby, Montana’s final hour distinguishes it most clearly from its dramatic counterparts like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action. Fictionalized versions of these stories tend to focus on unmasking the corporate cover-up and securing co-operation from insiders and townsfolk. The heroes of these versions are usually intrepid lawyers and/or activists. Not only does Libby, Montana largely dispense with the battle to secure cooperation from locals, but in its second hour it introduces a unique hero in the form of EPA on-site emergency co-ordinator, Paul Peronard.
Government agencies and their personnel are rarely given center-stage in popular narratives of corporate malfeasance. At best, they are ineffectual, and at worst, they are part of the problem. By contrast, Peronard is framed as a crusader for town residents, fighting both W.R. Grace and his political bosses to see that clean-up happens. That Peronard’s role occurs after the corporate cover-up has been exposed is as unique as his position in the narrative. The complicated happenings after culpability has been assessed is not the stuff of Hollywood dramas, but here it is a fascinating study in the hard work that remains after that initial step.
While Gunn Carr’s and Hawes-Davis’ sympathies are clearly with those affected by asbestos poisoning, they are careful to give time to voices in the town, and in Montana, that are wary of the EPA and reluctant to accept, particularly, listing as a Superfund site. There are even those who doubt W.R. Grace’s responsibility for the asbestos problem, preferring to lay blame at the feet of government agencies or even to soft pedal the nature of the town’s exposure. Governor Judith Martz, retired since 2004, serves as the primary representative of those in the community who see economic downsides to an extensive clean-up. While she eventually gives her blessing to a Superfund designation, getting to that point is shown to have been a touch-and-go fight.
The messiness of this matter is underscored near the film’s conclusion as questions about the extent and nature of the EPA effort to reduce the town’s continued exposure to asbestos sour the relationship between Paul Peronard and some of the formerly supportive residents. Indeed, while it’s hard not to be moved by the stories of the victims, one of the most poignant moments in Libby, Montana is Peronard hanging his head and holding back tears as an unnamed woman praises him and his work in the face of criticism from other townspeople. His reaction seems to stem as much from gratefulness for the woman’s words as from guilt over his bureaucratic response to the criticism, particularly from Les Skramstad.
The extra features on Libby, Montana include deleted scenes, audio interviews with Gunn Carr and Hawes-Davis, and trailers for other High Plains Films and Typecast Releasing movies.
The deleted scenes provide some insight into the filmmakers’ editorial choices. At one point, for example, they clearly thought about devoting more time to skeptics and W.R. Grace supporters, particularly those in Libby who continue to see Lovick as a trusted member of the community.
One segment provides an additional look at the cultural and economic role of logging in the town. The interviews are taken from PBS’ POV podcasts and Montana public radio. Both Gunn Carr and Hawes-Davis speak passionately about their film, the town, and their subjects. Of particular interest are their respective thoughts on how they managed to earn the trust of people in the town and separate themselves from the other media figures who descended on Libby following a 1999 Seattle Post-Intelligencer series on the asbestos problem. The trailers are more valuable than usual as they will likely introduce viewers to films that they have not yet heard of, especially the High Plains Films titles.
Libby, Montana’s strengths are in the filmmakers’ narrative sensibilities and the pathos of their subjects. As suggested above, the movie’s aesthetic and formal qualities appear to have been secondary considerations (though hardly ignored, as Gunn Carr and Hawes-Davies offer many well crafted images of their subjects and their landscapes).
Beyond the issues of integrating different kinds of footage, the second half of the movie relies on expository text to push the narrative along, this after a first half that managed to make its points largely through images, interviews, and observational video. Also curious is Gunn Carr’s and Hawes-Davis’ fascination with a guy who seemingly spends his days sitting by the side of the highway holding up signs that feature enigmatic messages like “Jesus or Scuba”. I can only imagine that this unnamed individual was more charismatic or cathartic in person than he is on DVD.
Despite these questions of aesthetics and form, the subtly and care of the story makes Libby, Montana a worthwhile and even important film.