What kind of price tag do you put on justice after decades of being harassed, abused, ignored and victimized by big business and government alike, whose actions have devastated a community and a way of life that will never be the same again? Can justice ever truly be served and what shape will it take? Those are the central questions that co-directors Maro Chermayeff and Micah Fink endeavor to answer with “Mann v. Ford” a well-intentioned, but fundamentally flawed film that takes us elbow-deep into the shocking and heartbreaking titular case, which results when the Ramapough Mountain Indians — longtime residents of Ringwood, N.J. — find their people ravaged with cancer and other illnesses after it’s discovered that Ford used their land as dumping ground for toxic waste in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
With a history stretching back well over a hundred years, the Ramapough are a close-knit and insular group that drew tighter as the world around them cast them in the roles of inbreeders, thieves and generally a northern version of the worst Ozarks-type people served up since “Deliverance.” And thus, as the community children began to develop strange symptoms from playing with the dumped paint sludge — often using it slide down hills or make colorful mud pies as kids are wont to do — the village elders, out of fear of the reaction they might get if they brought it to the authorities and a little wilful ignorance too, turned a blind eye to what they were seeing. But those symptoms soon became deadly diseases and the damage being done to both to the environment and to the the Ramapough was worse than anyone could have imagined.
Enter Vicki Gilliam, lawyer at the The Cochran Firm in Memphis, Tennessee who is hired by Wayne Mann to represent his people in a class action lawsuit against the car manufacturer. Pairing up with a few other firms to share the workload and expense, Gilliam begins pulling together the details of the case that will include over 600 plaintiffs and a web of malfeasance that seems to get worse each day the case moves forward. While Ford’s complicity is pretty much confirmed by their own damning internal memos, which not only reveal their full knowledge about the dumping that occurred at the time, they also demonstrate overt racism against the very people they were affecting. In short, they didn’t care and they were pretty sure no one else would either. But the failings didn’t stop there. Perhaps even more galling, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a Superfund site — one in desperate need of cleanup — only to literally pour a bunch of rocks over the problem and announce it was “safe.” In fact, it was still so badly polluted that the community rallied and succeeded in having their neighborhood relisted as a Superfund site (something that is rarely done) but the damage was done and the hope that their own government would step in to help quickly gave way to easy cynicism.
In case it isn’t already apparent, “Mann V. Ford” will make your stomach churn in outrage and your heart ache in sympathy. However, the filmmakers are hampered by an approach that almost never steps outside the viewpoint of the Ramapough and their supporters. This isn’t to impugn the accuracy of their evaluation of the devastating toll Ford’s actions have taken, but from a cinematic perspective, without the participation of anybody from the carmaker (they declined to be interviewed for the film) or even the EPA (they appear in a few brief scenes), “Mann V. Ford” quickly becomes one-note and at times drifts into being strident. With repeated mini-screeds against Evil Big Business and their attention on the bottom line versus human rights, the film takes on an amateurishly political bend at times that’s better suited to idealists in dorm rooms than a measured, level-headed film. And as an indication of perhaps how starved the directors were for material, the middle of the film takes a detour and creates a mini-documentary about Gilliam’s journey to becoming a lawyer. It’s a fascinating story but it has little to no bearing on the tremendous legal action that is being put forth.
As the doc moves into its second half, it simply begins notching timestamps in the decades-spanning case, with more and more details emerging not only painting a better picture of just how nearly everyone in the Ramapough has suffered sickness but also how much of this mess came from the decision-makers at Ford. A suggestion is floated that the EPA is actually run/lobbied by Ford and other industry folk who influence their findings but it never goes beyond suspicion. Likewise, a thread involving Lisa Jackson — a supposed champion of the Ramapough and President Obama’s choice to head up the EPA is his administration following the election — ends up unresolved with no followup after she is sworn in.
Justice does eventually arrive, but it’s a bittersweet moment because it ultimately does nothing to bring back those lost or to replace the void they left behind. Overlong, repetitive and not as investigative as it could have or should have been, “Mann V. Ford” can be admired for giving a voice to the Ramapough, but in doing so, Chermayeff and Fink make sure it’s the only voice you hear, to the detriment of the film. [C]
“Mann v. Ford” premieres on HBO tonight at 9 PM.