Salience and Silence on the Screen in the Time of COVID-19


Like many people who aren’t essential frontline workers, I am watching TV to save myself and to save us all from COVID-19. This has led to a nightly ritual with my wife and my two daughters in which we carry bowls of popcorn and cans of soda down into the basement, pile onto the couch, and watch movies together.

Finding the right niche for such viewing—a cinematic experience that can be enjoyed by this diverse group of ages and interests—has been a bit tricky. Recently, we stumbled onto a specific genre that I have never thought much about but now has me thinking a great deal. This genre is relatively common but I have yet to encounter a name for it, so I am calling it the “Lawyer-David-vs.-Corporate-Goliath” film. What the name lacks in ease of use, it makes up for in descriptiveness. I bet that right now, you know exactly which movies fit into this category, and you may even be able to guess the one that started us down this path: Dark Waters (directed by Todd Haynes and starring The Hulk, Mark Ruffalo). This, as far as I can tell, is the latest film in the genre, and I think it fits the category pretty neatly, slotting in alongside genre stalwarts such as Erin Brockovich and The Rainmaker.

The genre’s conventions are relatively simple and surprisingly consistent. The protagonist is a sort of fish out-of-water in the world of American law. Matt Damon’s character in The Rainmaker is young and inexperienced; he doesn’t even have a license when he signs up his initial clients. Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockovich isn’t even a lawyer. Ruffalo’s character begins Dark Waters as a defense attorney for the kind of corporate Goliaths he ends up battling in court by the movie’s end. These seemingly ill-suited protagonists are enlisted by a small group of pathos-inspiring Americans—usually an impoverished, cancer-stricken family in a rural (majority white) town. The case is generally an unwinnable battle against the genre’s Goliaths: massive American corporations that have done evil-yet-profitable things, things that damaged the small-town family (and usually the entire town or region), things that usually cause cancer. The battle between David and Goliath in these films includes several consistent tropes: the cadre of lawyers working for the Goliaths, the mountain of files in brown document boxes that the Davids must sort through, the heartbreaking death of a member of the small-town family, the key witness or piece of evidence that emerges just when all seems lost, and the Goliath executive who is finally made to confront his own dastardly role in the aforementioned evil-yet-profitable scheme.

It might sound as if I am disparaging the genre, but the truth is that these movies tend to be a bit formulaic—so they simply have a lot of overlapping conventions. The truth is also that I like these movies. I find them enjoyable even though (or perhaps because) I know how things will end and how we will get there. For instance, I was not surprised when Dark Waters’s Goliath, the Dupont Corporation, threw the plucky team of local lawyers a curveball by hiring a local government entity to establish a legally dubious environmental standard in a seemingly innocuous hearing. Such a move by the highly-paid team of corporate lawyers, performed with a kind of sneering condescension, is exactly what I expected when I realized the film was showing me the seemingly innocuous hearing rather than ignoring it. So I wasn’t surprised by the twist—but the scene still managed to stir the kind of disgust in me that it was meant to stir. I hated the corporate lawyers and the corporation itself, and I rooted for our heroes all that much harder. I couldn’t help it.

In the days that have followed, I find myself asking why. I am usually the kind of viewer who enjoys surprising endings or, at least, unconventional approaches to well-known genres. I like genre films, such as Knives Out, which know that they are genre films and wink at me with each convention or use my expectations against me. Dark Waters, The Rainmaker, and Erin Brockovich do very little of this. So why was I excited to watch Dark Waters twenty seconds into my first viewing of the trailer? What am I getting out of this viewing experience, and why were my wife and kids also sucked in?


Literary critics and scholars have been thinking about the concept of genre for a long time. I first encountered this body of scholarship when I was studying for a Master’s degree in Technical Communication in the middle 2000s. Much of my coursework asked the students to consider technical writing through the lens of what is now known as rhetorical genre theory, or what we might think of as the rhetorical turn in the study of genre. Building on Aristotle, scholars of rhetoric linked the concept of genre to the concept of “rhetorical situation,” a phrase coined by Lloyd Bitzer in the 1960s. Carolyn Miller published a seminal article in 1984 titled “Genre as Social Action” in which she argues that genres are not so much categories as they are responses to recurring rhetorical situations. Miller suggests that writers recognize generic situations (a lost dog, a job vacancy, the need for funding) and use genres that have evolved as responses to such situations (lost dog posters stapled to telephone poles, a job posting on a recruiting website, a grant proposal). In this way, genres are actions that we have all sort of agreed ought to be taken in specific contexts.

I was a technical writer when I learned about these ideas, and they transformed my understanding of how writing works. There was a time when I thought they didn’t apply at all to literary texts, but I have reversed my position on that now. Leslie Fiedler’s idea, spelled out in Love and Death in the American Novel, that American Gothic stories are a way to confront the repressed cultural memories of American history, for instance, seems to fit Miller’s theory in that there is a problem that keeps rearing its ugly head (the failure of American culture to confront its own violent, imperial past) and writers and readers keep responding to that problem in a generic fashion (with stories that find the past haunting the present in violent and bloody ways). The same is true for Lee Clark Mitchell’s idea that the genre of the Western constantly attempts to redefine American masculinity. In these cases, writers and readers of these genres recognize (perhaps subconsciously) a kind of cultural situation, and they respond by employing and consuming a genre that has evolved to respond to that situation. In this formulation, literary genres are cultural activities that allow writers and readers to sort out (or try to sort out) specific types of cultural anxieties. It is Miller’s idea writ large: genre as cultural action.

As I found myself thinking about the Lawyer-David-versus-Corporate-Goliath genre, I wondered: why does the culture keep making these movies? What situation or cultural anxiety are these films responding to—and what action does the genre take in response?


In my semi-disparaging summary of the Lawyer-David-versus-Corporate-Goliath genre, I didn’t mention the ending. These films all tend to end in similar ways. A judge or a jury announces a settlement: some ungodly sum of money that the small-town family could never possibly spend. The corporate lawyers turn away in disgust or promise to appeal. The genre’s Davids look a bit stunned that they won something, that a hefty percentage of that ungodly sum will finally be theirs. Usually, a textual epilogue closes the film, letting us know what happened next. And what happened next is usually that the Davids kept fighting, and they kept winning. This epilogue is important because the genre tends to be of the “based on a true story” variety. Erin Brockovich and Rob Bilott (Ruffalo’s character in Dark Waters) are real people, after all, and we want to know what they are up to.

The based-on-a-true-story component of this particular genre is important, I think, when we try to imagine what the genre does for us culturally. As my family and I read the epilogue for Dark Waters, we were assured that Rob Bilott continued to fight Dupont in court until Dupont gave up and handed over $670 million dollars and agreed to fund increased testing and even retroactive health care for its victims. That was reassuring because, for most of the film, such an outcome had seemed almost impossible, even while our history with the genre assured us that it was likely. And, this, I think gets at the cultural purpose—what Lloyd Bitzer called “the exigence”—of the genre.

Bitzer argued that a rhetorical exigence was an “imperfection marked by an urgency,” a problem that could potentially be solved by rhetoric. The imperfection at the heart of these films is not just the corporations themselves, the Goliaths, but rather the fact that evil-yet-profitable stuff can be so easily pulled off—that no one notices it. Or, if someone does notice that evil stuff is afoot, these folks are silenced or ignored until a David comes along. The system seems to favor Goliath, but the genre assures us that the system only seems to favor Goliath. The fact that David always wins reminds us that there are people out there who figure the system out. We like the genre because it calms us; it soothes us to know that things aren’t irreparably broken but rather, just complicated. Don’t worry, these movies tell us (because we are worried), things will be okay, David the Lawyer is out there.

Yet the fact that such a genre exists and seems to work so well reveals an inherent anxiety about the state of American capitalism. Periodically, all of America apparently needs to be assured that capitalism does not just run wild, that we are not overrun with evil for profit’s sake. America, these films promise, is reigned in and disciplined, humbled by lawerly Davids who make our world work in a way that we all expect—and in a way we can all respect. At one point in Dark Waters, Bilott’s law firm must decide whether to pursue a class action lawsuit against Dupont in the first place, and the executive of Bilott’s firm argues in favor of going after the corporation by saying: “We expect better of American business.”


In 1974, six years after Bitzer published his article “The Rhetorical Situation,” a then-graduate student named Richard Vatz published a response titled “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Vatz argued that Bitzer’s concept got the position of rhetoric and situation backward. Instead of responding to situations, Vatz argues that rhetoric evokes or creates them. There is no situation until we begin to talk about things because meaning does not reside in things themselves; instead, meaning is made when we use language to describe those things. For Vatz, this distinction is fundamental because it reveals that rhetoric is used not only to resolve problems but also to define problems and to decide which problems are worth resolving, which problems are worth thinking about at all. “The very choice of what facts or events are relevant,” Vatz claims, “is a matter of pure arbitration. Once the choice is communicated, the event is imbued with salience.”

As I watched the credits roll on Dark Waters and my daughters talked about the environmental and human damage perpetrated in the name of Teflon and the dogged perseverance of Ruffalo’s Rob Bilott, I thought about the stories we choose to tell and the stories we leave untold—the stories imbued with salience and the stories imbued with silence. Although Dark Waters assures us that Dupont didn’t get away with it, the film also reminds us of those untold stories. Dupont, we know, is just one corporate behemoth in a nation of them. When Ruffalo stands in the parking lot of a Benihana and tells Anne Hathaway that “the system is rigged,” some part of us knows he is right. Some part of us also knows that nobody makes films where the corporate overlords do get away with it.

Each time one of these movies ended, my family and I went to bed assured that things work out, eventually. Given that we have turned to these films as a way of seeing out a pandemic, this assurance is valuable—even if it is fragile and, perhaps, self-deceptive. Some part of me needs to believe that everything is going to work out right now. And, as a father, I want my daughters to believe in a world where things work out, at least sometimes. I am happy to escape with my family into a story where victory comes at the precise moment when things look to be at their worst. Although my own suspicions lead me to believe that the Lawyer-David-versus-Corporate-Goliath genre employs a sleight-of-hand that gives us a few success stories while ignoring the many failures, I still like it because another word for sleight-of-hand is magic, and I think my little family needs some magical thinking right now.

But now that I have seen how the trick works, I also can’t help but wonder about the stories that will be salient in a week or a month or a year—or when we have finally settled into an existence where we can think about things other than a virus. Which rhetorical situations will we create then? Who will be the Davids and who will be the Goliaths? Who is getting away with what right now, and will we ever know? Will we tell tales of disaster capitalism, or will we choose to ignore them in favor of stories that work out? It seems likely to me that we will respond to this pandemic by choosing not to tell the stories that will simply hurt too much. Those stories will make us feel helpless again, and they will probably remain untold and therefore unorganized even into something we might call “a situation,” lost to the world of language as the world turns toward stories that make us all feel better by knowing less.

Quinn Grover is an English professor at BYU-Idaho. He teaches courses on writing and literature. His book, Wilderness of Hope: Fly Fishing and Public Lands in the American West, was published in 2019 by the University of Nebraska Press. His research interests include the literature of the American West and the study of literary and rhetorical genres.

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