Dark Waters: Is Phil Donnelly Based on a Real DuPont Lawyer?

For viewers of ‘Dark Waters,’ the character of Phil Donnelly served as the face of the organization that protagonist Robert Bilott was fighting so hard against. Portrayed by Victor Garber, Donnelly is initially showcased as a character ready to help Bilott in his quest but then becomes somewhat antagonistic when the lawyer tries to delve deeper. Serving as the face of DuPont for the audience, Donnelly’s actions and words allowed Todd Haynes to be an opposing force against the leading characters. Given that the film itself is inspired by real-life events, each and every person on the screen has piqued the curiosity of the watchers, especially Donnelly, given his somewhat antagonistic portrayal.

Phil Donnelly Represents DuPont’s Legal Team

As it turns out, Phil Donnelly, the man who represented DuPont in ‘Dark Waters,’ is not actually a real person. Portrayed exquisitely by actor Victor Garber, the on-screen executive of the chemical company does not actually exist. That said, the fictional character is not completely a figment of imagination and does have some roots in reality. It also serves a critical role in the movie, where the lawyers and citizens try to fight against a company with billions of dollars in income and a history dating back to the early 19th century.

What Donnelly does in the movie, from his initial openness to work alongside Robert Bilott to his later anger about the lawyer’s continued pursuit of truth, is a representation of how the filmmakers, including Todd Haynes, want the viewers to see DuPont. The director of the movie has also pointed out that while he had the liberty to use the names of the lawyers against DuPont in his film, the same can not be said for people on the opposite side of the legal battle.

“Everybody who was on Rob’s side gave us permission to use their names and became advisors on the project,” Haynes told Vox. “That was not true for anybody on the DuPont side, clearly. So those were all fictionalized characters but based on real people.” Donnelly is one such example of a character that was created to represent the actions and insights of those affiliated with DuPont. For Garber, Donnelly was a character he enjoyed playing, especially given his position in the story.

According to Garber, Donnelly stood by his company, and though his actions were certainly not good, they came from his desire to save his company’s reputation. The actor also stated that the intimidating aura that the fictional character seems to have in his scenes is representative of DuPont’s own power in the arena that Robert Bilott had decided to enter. Even in the scene where the lawyer and the executive end up in an argument in front of everyone, it is certainly parallel to how the world’s attention turned toward the battle between the public and DuPont when Bilott decided to poke the multinational chemical giant bear.

There is also a remarkable dialogue in the scene where Bilott is trying to explore just how DuPont was getting away with its actions. “What if the reason Phil Donnelly agreed to discovery on hazardous is because he knows whatever’s in the landfill isn’t even regulated?” is something that Bilott’s character may have said about Donnelly, but it is clear that the viewers are meant to see this as something applicable to DuPont itself at large.

Essentially, Donnelly is a character that came about due to a need to present a human face to an apparent faceless foe. The storyline of the movie, though based on true events, is essentially meant to showcase a fight between the good and the bad. With many characters, like Bilott, representing one of the sides, Donnelly became the person that viewers could associate with, just whom the legal and moral fight was against.

Read More: The True Story Behind Dark Waters, Explained