Where’s the Truth in ‘Erin Brockovich’?


The Big Picture

  • Erin Brockovich is a compelling courtroom drama that tells the true story of an unemployed single mother who takes on a powerful corporation accused of polluting a city’s water supply.
  • The film accurately depicts the legal process through Erin Brockovich’s experiences and showcases her discoveries about the contamination of groundwater with a carcinogenic chemical.
  • While the film received critical acclaim and an Academy Award for Julia Roberts’ performance, some aspects of the story and characters were embellished for dramatic effect.

While Hollywood has churned out compelling courtroom dramas since the inception of the genre, Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 biopic Erin Brockovich proved to be the rare mainstream hit within the genre. Soderbergh proved that a “crowd pleaser” didn’t have to forsake its audience’s intelligence, and crafted a funny, inspirational, and informative story about an incredible moment in recent news. While much of Erin Brockovich’s success can be attributed to Soderbergh’s brilliance behind the camera, the film landed with the impact that it had because of the brilliant performance by Julia Roberts in the titular role. While the performance earned Roberts an Academy Award for Best Actress, Erin Brockovich embellishes elements of the real story for the sake of dramatic license.

Erin Brockovich

An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply.

Release Date
March 17, 2000

Steven Soderbergh

131 minutes

The Inspirational True Story of ‘Erin Brockovich’

Erin Brockovich examines the incredible true story of an unemployed single mother who took on one of the most powerful corporations in American history in the ultimate “David vs. Goliath” scenario. After a critical car accident forces her to go to court, Brockovich’s fiery attitude results in her losing the case. Although her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), is infuriated about the results, he takes pity on Brockovich when she decides to start working as a paralegal. Although Brockovich is initially a secretary, she discovers critical paperwork involving the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in Hinkley, California. Like many of Soderbergh’s best films, Erin Brockovich explores the minutiae of the legal process through one character’s experiences.

Brockovich herself has admitted that the film is “probably 98 %” accurate in depicting what actually happened, although some aspects of Soderbergh’s interpretation and Roberts’ performance have been disputed. The paperwork Brockovich uncovers leads her to the home of Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger), a homeowner who turns her on to the contamination of groundwater with chromium. Although Brockovich’s initial goal was to settle Jensen’s real estate case, she uncovers evidence that PG&E has misrepresented the potentially lethal effects of the chemical on public health. While PG&E claims to Hinkley’s homeowners that they utilize a safer chemical version, the files indicate that the company uses hexavalent chromium, a chemical with carcinogenic effects.

Although she’s initially let go by Masry, Brockovich is rehired by the firm and begins working on a major class action lawsuit. Brockovich begins to interview various Hinkley residents about the medical issues that they have had as a result of living in the area; while these low and middle-class residents are the subjects that are often ignored in major cases, Brockovich can lift them and give them a voice. Among the most critical of her discoveries is that the doctors employed by PG&E seem to indicate that the various medical side effects are a coincidence, and fail to draw any conclusions regarding the systematic pollution and its effect on public health. Brockovich becomes an underdog who fights to finally hold the corporation accountable for their misdeeds.


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‘Erin Brockovich’ Depicts a Real Court Case

Julia Roberts And Albert Finney having an intense conversation in Erin Brockovich
Image via Universal Pictures

Erin Brockovich explores a real court ruling where PG&E was forced to settle with its victims. Although the class action case pointed to the fault of PG&E’s facility in Hinkley, and not its senior management, a key piece of evidence revealed towards the end of the case proved significant in the final court decision. As Brockovich reveals, the former PG&E employee Charles Embry (Tracey Walter) gave her critical documents that prove that PG&E’s senior board was aware of the ongoing pollution within the Hinkley area but advised the local facility to keep the crisis a secret. This evidence points to a larger conspiracy that goes beyond any negligence on the part of just one segment of the company; it’s one of the many instances in which Soderbergh uses his films to condemn the rich and powerful.

In a shocking decision that sparked national interest in Brockovich’s story, PG&E is forced to pay $333 million in damages to be equally distributed among Hinkley residents affected by the systematic pollution. Brockovich personally earned $2 million for the case, earning respect in the eyes of Masry. While the film frames its ending as happy, the aftermath of the ruling wasn’t so positive in real life. Many Hinkley residents were upset about the equal distribution of the payout, as some families had to deal with more significant medical costs and dealt with other legal issues. While the film itself succeeded in putting Hinkley under a national spotlight, the town’s population has continued to dwindle in recent years and has been described as a “ghost town.”

What Did ‘Erin Brockovich’ Make Up?

Many of Brockovich’s unique mannerisms were lifted from reality, and why the film is often cited as one of Roberts’ best roles. Brockovich’s aptitude for using profanity, impressive memory, and wearing provocative clothing are all based on fact, although she disputes that this was to “distract” PG&E attendants so that she could gain access to critical documents. Similarly, the film reveals that Brockovich won a Miss Wichita beauty pageant, while in real life she won the Miss Pacific Coast competition. However, a scene where Brockovich serves PG&E residential water from Hinkley is authentically represented and makes for one of the most memorable performances in the film.

While the film represents the truth of what actually happened, the relationships between some characters were misinterpreted. While Masry was the real lawyer who mentored Roberts during their pursuit of PG&E, he was not the same attorney who represented her following her car crash; she was actually defended by his partner, Jim Vititoe. While Brockovich’s biker boyfriend, George Halaby (Aaron Eckhart) has a friendly relationship with her in the film, the real Halaby attempted to sue Brockovich due to an alleged affair. The character Charles Embry is based on Chuck Ebersohl; in the 2001 documentary The Erin Brockovich Story, Ebersohl admits that he and Lillian Melendez were ordered to destroy critical documents by PG&E.

Erin Brockovich is streaming on Netflix in the U.S.

Watch on Netflix


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