Weed Killer Into the Weeds: Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company

directed and written by Jennifer Baichwal

Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about a lawsuit filed against the agrochemical multinational Monsanto is a David and Goliath story in which the little guy takes the giant down but doesn’t have the pleasure of cutting off his head. The David in this version of the story is Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a 45-year-old school groundskeeper whose job spraying the herbicide Roundup resulted in his contracting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As with any story, a device needs to be found to move the narrative along. In Hamlet, the play was the thing wherein the prince could catch the conscience of the king; in the film, the trial room is the place where the law reveals Monsanto’s complete disgrace.

The trial becomes the focus of the documentary, and the issues raised during its proceedings spin out from a San Francisco courtroom to farms in the United States and Canada, an entomological society and nature reserve in Germany, an artificial intelligence company in Pittsburgh, a Mass Torts convention of lawyers in Las Vegas, an EU public hearing in Brussels and the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation on the North Shore of Lake Huron, and into the operations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, DC. Every one of these places comes back to the trial room and contributes to a devastating indictment of Monsanto’s ethics and business practices.

What makes Baichwal’s documentary so compelling is the skilful clarity with which she presents a complicated story with many moving parts. She is aided in this by the luck of the legal draw. The main counsel for the two sides in the case are a study in contrasts. George Lombardi, Monsanto’s lawyer, has an ingratiating manner and the unfortunate tendency, especially when attempting to be most sincere, to bend at the knee and swoop towards the direction of the jury in a way that is both emphatic and importuning. He is not persuasive. R Brent Wisner, the co-lead lawyer for Lee Johnson, is focused, has a winning personality and is skilful in taking complex issues and making them understandable. If Lombardi reeks of insincerity, Wisner has the opposite effect. He projects an air of earnest confidence.

Into the Weeds overflows with disturbing statistics, one of which is that every year, 114 million pounds of glyphosate is sprayed annually for non-agricultural use on ditches, golf courses, railways, beaches and campgrounds, as well as in the forests. After this information is conveyed, the film cuts to Ray Owl, a Traditional Ecological Knowledge Elder on Robinson- Huron Treaty Territory, who recounts what this spraying has done in northern Ontario. “The whole chain is affected, not just one little thing,” he says. “They took the forest out of the bush. Now you put in a garden. No poplars, no soft maple, or birch. Your garden is jack pine, spruce.” And then he begins to comment on a cluster of missing connections. “You don’t hear no birds singing, we don’t see no eagles, no crows flying around. No insects, nothing. It’s sterile.”

In the same way that nature is connected, the film also makes connections. We go from Canada’s North to Germany, where an entomologist picks up the insect trail and the linkages among all living things. Then Baichwal makes a visual shift. We go from bees in the hive to computer boards and technology grids as a way of moving from one organized system to another. Among her many gifts is an acute sense of how to create a spoken thread of meaning by taking an observation from one person and linking it to an observation from someone else. She orchestrates a conversation and an argument. It is a kind of seamless collaging, and what makes her achievement even more remarkable is that Into the Weeds was shot and edited without a traditional script. She seems to find her movie in the shooting.

Documentarians are never neutral towards the subject of their films and where they stand usually becomes apparent early on. It would be difficult to be sympathetic to the Monsanto case and its advocates. Aimee Wagstaff, one of the members of the Executive Committee for Roundup Litigation, says on a panel in 2019, “There is a complete and utter hatred towards this company and as we go through discovery we’ve actually learned why that is, and it’s not unfounded.” If the statement seems extreme, the evidence presented in court reveals its accuracy. At best, every one of the witnesses for Monsanto is made to look ridiculous because of their conveniently faulty memories; at worst, they appear to be apologists or liars. The various medical and scientific doctors in the employ of the company are especially unconvincing. Dr William Heydens was responsible for the ghostwriting process that was an important part of the Monsanto public relations strategy. The company wrote internal scientific papers arguing that glyphosate was not carcinogenic and then had those papers signed by other doctors. There is a revealing exchange during Heydens’s testimony about whether he said he would strangle a fellow doctor were he to rewrite a particularly favourable paper. He categorically denies any such threat, but when shown an email in which he writes exactly that, his response is continual denial. “I must have had bad recall because that is not what happened.” The pattern throughout the film is to catch the Monsanto representatives through evidence gathered from their own paper trails.

Perhaps the most despicable of the medical professionals is Dr Daniel Goldstein, the Lead for Medical Sciences and Outreach. On two separate occasions Lee Johnson had actually written to Monsanto asking if they could provide any advice about what might have caused his condition. Internal memos indicate that his request had reached Goldstein’s attention, and he testifies that “I had an intention to contact him but it didn’t happen.” Monsanto knew by this time that glyphosate was dangerous, but they ignored Johnson’s request for information. So it is shocking to hear Goldstein say that were he asked today if he would warn Johnson about using Roundup, he would not. He is a picture of discomfort: he blinks nervously, shifts his gaze around the courtroom and fidgets in his seat. You feel that were he able to get out of his skin and leave it behind, he would gladly do so. As a viewer, your only reaction to his hypocrisy is contempt.

Monsanto used other questionable methods. The company had a separate department whose purpose was to defame and intimidate scientists, activists and journalists who were critical of the company and who disputed the safety of glyphosate. Neil Young, who released a scathing album in 2015 called “The Monsanto Years,” was on their list. The group was provided an annual budget of $17 million to spread accusations and falsehoods. Monsanto also had friends inside the EPA, the government organization created to protect the public from the use of dangerous toxins. An email is introduced in court in which an employee of the EPA who has worked to invalidate an unfavourable study writes, “If I can kill this I should get a medal.” The trial is linear and as it goes on, the evidence against Monsanto accumulates.

This kind of information is part of the trial proceedings and its inclusion shifts the case from a legal debate to a melodrama. It’s easy to recognize the bad guys and the good guys. But Baichwal includes moments from outside the courtroom that add new layers to Monsanto’s culpability. In Lee Johnson’s examination for discovery in January of 2018, he is asked how long he and Araceli have been married. The reaction from Monsanto’s lawyer, whom we don’t see on camera, is to issue a blanket objection to this and all questions that relate to his personal life. As viewers, we share Johnson’s mixture of incredulity and disgust at the tactic. In hoping to keep any aspect of his humanity out of the courtroom, what Monsanto’s legal team achieves is to reveal the complete absence of that quality in their approach. Johnson is a rapper who performs under the name Antlee, and one of his song lyrics goes, “I’m in a fight with the monster.” The film provides ample evidence of the accuracy of the description of his adversary.

Baichwal holds the most damaging evidence of Monsanto’s effect on Lee Johnson’s life until the end of the documentary. Indications of his suffering are presented during the trial, but Baichwal gathers her own footage in the hospital’s Hematology Ward and then in a hotel room, where Lee applies a salve to the top of his entire body—head, arms, back and chest, all shot in extreme close-up. It is excruciating to watch and to hear him reflect on his present life. “The pain becomes all you can think about,” he says, “It consumes you.” But the most devastating shot is not of Lee’s body but a slow pan along his rumpled white sheets covered in flecks of skin, and up to the white pillows spotted with bloodstains from his suppurating lesions. It is a haunting landscape of pain and loss and eventual disappearance. This sequence is shown just before we return to the courtroom for the reading of the verdict. Its inclusion wasn’t for the jury because they never saw it. The ravaged body scene was for us in the audience, so that we can see the extent of the damage Lee Johnson has undergone.

The summations from the two lawyers are a brilliant example of Baichwal’s editing and persuasive focus. Lombardi performs his usual swoop and bend while appealing to the jury to put prejudice aside and to be fair to his client. His statement that the overwhelming evidence supports the conclusion that glyphosate does not contribute to cancer is a preposterous inversion of what anyone sitting in the courtroom would have witnessed. There was, indeed, overwhelming evidence but it fell on the side of cancer-causing, not cancer-denying. Baichwal gives Lombardi 57 seconds.

Brent Wisner’s summary is longer (he is given one minute and 45 seconds) and its quiet drama and dignity have a To Kill a Mockingbird ring. What is astonishing is that Baichwal took this short section from a summary that actually went on for two hours and nine minutes. Wisner begins by saying that today will be Monsanto’s “day of reckoning” and then he tells the jury that there is a Monsanto employee, a Miss Buck, who is on a speed dial to a conference room filled with Monsanto executives waiting to pop champagne bottles if they recommend a low settlement. Lombardi’s objection that it be stricken as fantasy is sustained, but the scene has been set and his words have been heard. Wisner goes on, telling the members of the jury that the amount awarded “has to be significant enough to convince them to change what they’re doing. If it isn’t champagne corks are poppin’, ‘Atta boys’ are everywhere.” And then he adds, riskily, “They’re laughing at you. Your verdict will be heard around the world.”

It was. The jury’s award to Lee Johnson of $289 million seeded a series of lawsuits that eventually resulted in Monsanto’s paying out more than $16 billion to 98,000 of 125,000 plaintiffs in the US. As of February 2022, there are 28 Canadian lawsuits relating to Roundup. Many other cases are ongoing, and many cases have been settled for considerably smaller amounts than were originally awarded. Monsanto, which was bought by Bayer in 2018 for $66 billion, continues to argue that glyphosate, the main chemical component in Roundup, does not cause cancer.

So Goliath still has his head. Robin Greenwald, a member of the Executive Committee and a storied veteran of high-level corporate litigation, is skeptical: “I’ve been a lawyer for over 30 years and through my entire career I have only sued corporations and I don’t see changes in corporate behaviour.” She warns, “Next time they might be more careful with their emails, so it’ll be even harder to prove. In my next life, I’ll do something different.” Like her, Into the Weeds tells a cautionary tale, eyes wide open to the mendacity and immorality of the way Monsanto operates in the world. Baichwal’s timely film lets us know that we are running out of time. It is not a new message, but it is one we need to hear over and over again. Winning in the courtroom is one victory, but the bigger win would be a decision in the court of public opinion about what has to be done to save the natural world. ❚