Joe Berlinger made his name with a series of documentaries that chronicled twisty legal proceedings with rare depth and artistry. In 1992's Brother's Keeper, Berlinger and codirector Bruce Sinofsky charted the saga of the Ward brothers, a quartet of elderly siblings in rural New York for whom a seemingly natural death spins into a mind-bendingly salacious murder trial. For 1996's Paradise Lost, Berlinger and Sinofsky found an even twistier case: the child murders at Robin Hood Hills, in which a trio of mopey Arkansas teens were convicted of killing three young boys. The documentary uncovered enough complicating evidence about the convictions (and the possible identity of the actual killer) to fuel a follow-up—2000's Paradise Lost 2: Revelations—and spark a vast and passionate movement to "Free the West Memphis Three." In all three films, criminal-justice plotlines are buffered by small, revelatory scenes of "normal life" that expand Berlinger and Sinofsky's nonfiction legal thrillers into deep, rich portraits of a time, place, and people.
In Crude: The Real Price of Oil, Berlinger flies solo into territory that's of a piece with his and Sinofsky's collaborations: the intricate legal battle behind one of the biggest, messiest environmental lawsuits in history. On one side: the 30,000 residents of the Amazon jungle of Ecuador, who claim that three decades of criminal irresponsibility by U.S. oil giant Texaco has so polluted the air, land, and water that the residents' very existence is in peril. On the other side: Texaco, which denies all claims of wrongdoing and is ready to spend unlimited millions to make sure the case never sees a courtroom.
Despite Texaco's strenuous efforts, the case finally gets its day in court, and that's when Crude springs to life: slogging through the jungle with judges and attorneys out to see the alleged evidence with their own eyes, jetting around the globe with the indigenous spokesman of the "Amazon Chernobyl," out to put a human face on this daunting wad of environmental finger-pointing and international bureaucracy.
In lesser hands, Crude would have made a dandy bit of preaching-to-the-choir advocacy porn. But Berlinger devotes himself to his usual task: getting as much messy truth as possible up on the screen. Texaco's talking heads get equivalent screen time with the plaintiffs' U.S. legal team and cancer-packed families. The result is an international legal thriller that will quietly blow your mind.