No Sudden Move, Steven Soderbergh’s new star-studded crime thriller, has earned great reviews from critics. But the movie also ended up teaching me, an environment reporter, a piece of important pollution history that I knew nothing about. To the, I’m sure many, movie executives reading this blog, listen up: I want more movies like this, where we can see inside car companies’ nefarious schemes.
I’m not a Big Movie Guy, so you’ll have to go elsewhere for a grand cinematic analysis of the film, but I had a hell of a good time watching No Sudden Move. (FYI, medium-level spoilers for the movie follow.) Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro play criminals living in Detroit in 1954. They’re hired by a criminal middleman, played by Brendan Fraser (!!), to do a job for a big mob boss, a character played by Ray Liotta. They join another small-time crook, played by Kieran Culkin (Roman from Succession), to blackmail a General Motors employee played by David Harbour (Hopper from Stranger Things) by holding his family hostage until he does what they want: steal a mysterious document from inside his boss’s safe at GM. The plot advances from there: There are double-crossings, guns, Jon Hamm as a cop, lots of driving around in fantastically stylish old cars, and Matt Damon in a late act, uncredited role as a baddie working for the auto industry.
One thing No Sudden Move doesn’t supply too much of is exposition. There’s a whole lot of character backstory and narrative that Soderbergh seems to trust the audience to pick up on its own. This applies both to the broad strokes of the plot—we’re never quite sure why everyone is so panicked over the document in the safe, and it doesn’t really matter to the main storyline—as well as the rich historical context of the film. In one scene, Don Cheadle’s character is speaking with an old friend, who mentions a neighborhood that was destroyed. It took a bit of furious Googling during a pause on my end to figure out that the character is referencing the destruction of Black Bottom, a historically Black neighborhood that was torn down in an infamous act of racist “urban renewal.”
My ears briefly perked up in the fourth act when Matt Damon’s character said there was ”no conclusive evidence” that there’s any link between cars and pollution. I figured it was another line to add historical color to the movie, given the era portrayed in the movie pre-dates many environmental laws. But as the end credits roll, a title card tells the viewer that years after the movie’s fictional story ended, the Department of Justice sued big automakers for colluding to keep pollution control technology out of their cars.
The mysterious document in the safe that everyone was fighting over, we’d seen earlier, was a blueprint for a pollution control device. Turns out, all the action I had just watched was a result of car companies scrambling to not let their research become public—which could have forced them to clean up their act, almost certainly saving lives in the process. It was a fictional story, sure, but grounded in historical fact.
I report on climate, pollution, and corporate sneakiness for my job, so it really blew my mind that I didn’t know more about this crucial piece of pollution history. I decided to do a little digging (while watching the movie again).
In 1969, DOJ sued GM, Ford, Chrysler, American Motors Corp., and the Automobile Manufacturers Association of America—the trade group for auto companies—alleging that as far back as 1953, these companies had agreed to not compete with each other in developing pollution control devices for their cars. The suit also claimed the automakers had agreed to not sell any cars with pollution-reducing technology before certain dates that the group set. This agreement, the suit alleged, meant that pollution controls in certain models could have been installed years before they began to be put on cars in the mid-1960s. That could have saved untold lives and reduced the public health impacts of air pollution in cities, particularly the heavy burden on communities of color.
Understanding why car companies would collude to not make the air cleaner needs a little bit of context. Starting in the early 1940s, smog was becoming a persistent urban public health problem. Los Angeles and other cities saw an increasing number of days where smog caused low visibility and stung people’s eyes. (There are some wild photos from that time of people biking or walking down the street in full gas masks.) Research begun in California in the late 1940s started to definitively link smog to exhaust from car engines.
Faced with this mounting evidence, car companies doubled down on denial and claimed that the science was wrong, and that exhaust from cars wasn’t that bad. A Ford executive wrote to a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1953 claiming that exhaust from cars did “not present an air-pollution problem,” a line that nearly mirrors Damon’s in No Sudden Move.
Still, automakers needed to do something to save their public image and stave of regulations. Between 1953 and 1954, big car companies agreed to form a committee to research the issue and develop pollution control technology; executives pledged after a visit to Los Angeles that each company would devote $1 million for research per year. But the DOJ lawsuit alleged that that agreement served as a cover for the companies to actually work together to stall research on air pollution control. According to documents obtained by a grand jury in the lawsuit, a manager at DuPont Chemical wrote in a memo in 1959 that the big automakers weren’t “interested in making or selling devices ... but are working solely to protect themselves against poor public relations and the time when exhaust control devices may be required by law.”
The DOJ lawsuit ended up falling apart in a pretty messy way. It was filed just as the Nixon administration was coming into power. The auto industry had a very good lawyer who managed to broker a settlement that also, conveniently, sealed evidence uncovered by the grand jury and prevented the public at the time from hearing about what was really going on. A couple of follow-up lawsuits from states attempting to hold automakers responsible were tossed out by courts. By the start of the 1970s, automakers had turned their attention to lobbying against the Clean Air Act, which mandated that they put pollution control technology in cars; eventually, the antitrust suit was largely forgotten from public memory.
Watching No Sudden Move again, it really blew my mind that there haven’t been more movies that position carmakers as bad guys—or at least show their scheming for what it really is. There’s a seemingly endless supply of historical fodder of corporate malfeasance. Car companies continued to fight the government tooth and nail for decades on pollution controls, with plenty of accompanying scandals and schemes along the way (Dieselgate, anyone?). As No Sudden Move shows, car companies can make phenomenal movie villains or nefarious, behind-the-scenes corporate puppeteers.
They’re tailor-made for the role, with shadowy executives willing to put profit above the public good, lies, big money at stake, and more. They’re basically the Joker of corporations. But texting with a friend who writes about cars for a living, the only movie we could come up with that showcased carmakers’ full abilities for corporate fuckery was a Michael Moore documentary about how GM stifled the electric car. Meanwhile, Vin Diesel continues to blow up Dodge Chargers once every couple of years on the big screen like clockwork. (The Fast & Furious franchise is a guilty pleasure of mine, but there’s no denying it’s its own form of pro-car propaganda.)
As No Sudden Move shows, you don’t need to hammer the audience over the head with morality or outrage to teach people about how corporations have ruined the environment and public health, or choose between making a thriller or an educational movie. You can make a fun crime romp while also highlighting an important piece of pollution history. And if Brendan Fraser is in it, even better.