'Erin Brockovich'

By Steve Daly
February 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

You’ve got to be careful with docudramas. Just ask director Norman Jewison. Last year, he watched The Hurricane get shut out of Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director after a storm of controversy over how the movie altered, compressed, and rearranged the controversial facts of the life of boxer Rubin Carter, played by Denzel Washington.

Months before that debate erupted in the press, Steven Soderbergh had already wrapped shooting on Erin Brockovich, the fact-based story of one woman’s legal war against Pacific Gas & Electric over water contamination in a California town. But Soderbergh made sure he wouldn’t make headlines for taking liberties. ”I wasn’t out to make it worse than it was,” the director has said. ”I felt a lot of my work was familiarizing myself with … the history of the case itself, [to] try and tilt the film as close as possible to what actually happened.”

Indeed, on DVD versions of Brockovich, there’s a fascinating appendix of cut scenes — one of which shows Brockovich’s children playing in icky, green-chemical-soaked sand near the Hinkley power plant. While the real Brockovich did discover that kind of oozing discharge around the Hinkley facility, Soderbergh dropped the segment because in fact she found it much closer to the plant than the scene indicated, and her kids weren’t with her.

That’s just one of the umpteen ways Soderbergh kept Erin Brockovich from turning into an overheated diatribe. While the movie is unquestionably built around the appeal of superstar Julia Roberts telling off menfolk and uptight coworkers, the facts of the Hinkley residents’ travails accumulate bit by low-key bit to devastating effect. It’s a semi-signatureless style, all the more amazing in the same year as the idiosyncratic Traffic — a double play that has landed Soderbergh with the first twin directorial nominations since Michael Curtiz in 1939. The Hollywood veteran proved himself a first-rate craftsman in most any genre he tackled, and so has Soderbergh.