‘FLINT’ Film Review: Horrifying Documentary Tracks the Water Woes That Still Plague Michigan

It’s got the twists and turns of a whodunit, but those feel devastating in a non-fiction story

Cargo Film

The documentary “FLINT” has more twists and turns than a Hollywood whodunit, and that’s not good for a real-life tragedy. While the villains are many, and they switch order of importance depending on the stage of the crisis, the victims never change: Flint residents, and most sadly the kids, suffer the consequences. This is especially egregious considering that all they did was drink the water.

“There’s nothing more fundamental to your life than water, and for that to be what can naturally hurt you, cripple you or kill you, that’s something that you can never get over,” says attorney Trachelle Young. Isn’t clean water what celebrities like Jay-Z, Bono and Alicia Keys have fought for in other, less developed countries? For it to happen in the United States, in Flint, Michigan, is yet another example of how this nation needs to get its own house in order.

April 25, 2014 — when Flint switched its water supply from the Great Lakes, Lake Huron specifically, to the Flint River — is the date of the crime, and it was ordered by Michigan governor Rick Snyder, a one-time accountant with no previous political experience. Like many Republicans, Snyder promised to run Michigan like a business, and one of those business decisions was that the city’s drinking water should come from the Flint River.

Since that river had not been used for drinking water in 50 years, residents, it was reported, were skeptical. Politicians were not. There’s even a visual of men in positions of authority, all white, toasting the decision with water.

After firmly establishing the background to the documentary in its first few minutes, director Anthony Baxter (“Trumped”) shows FLINT in bold red letters with the doc’s narrator, Alec Baldwin, announcing: “This is the story of what happens next.”

What happens next is beyond horrific. Tammy Loren talks about a rash resembling chicken pox on her 12-year-old son Jeremiah’s skin, among other atrocities. We are placed in a world in which resident after resident attributes ailments to the water which, for most of them, is running brown instead of clear. There’s evidence of lead poisoning in children supported by the rise of learning disabilities, a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, plus a rise in cases of pneumonia.  Residents must take elaborate steps just to brush their teeth and bathe.

Yet instead of government officials heeding constituent concerns and addressing them, they insist the water is safe, only backing down after headlines are made and evidence from experts outside the state make it asinine to assert otherwise.

As residents continue to protest and file lawsuits, the drama becomes even more heightened. In an interesting turn of events, Marc Edwards — the Virginia Tech professor of civil and environmental engineering, and water treatment and corrosion expert who was critical in getting the state to recognize the problem in the first place — flips sides and becomes an advisor to Governor Snyder, whom many Flint residents feel should be imprisoned. So while Flint residents continue to insist that their water is still unsafe despite the state’s corrective measures, Snyder, under Edwards’s guidance, pushes back.

Edwards joining forces with the state and cosigning that they have restored the water for safe consumption opens the door for the nonprofit Water Defense, founded and led by Mark Ruffalo, to come in and drop another lifeline to the fight that keeps the Flint water crisis in the headlines. With him comes a savior-turned-Judas in Scott Smith, who does a heel turn that would be jaw-dropping in a thriller but is beyond devastating in real life.

Baxter’s look at Flint might not be what most would expect; he spent five years making it and, according to press notes, even returned there earlier in 2022. Understandably Alec Baldwin’s troubles with “Rust” delayed the doc’s original October 29, 2021, release date. (Baldwin, for his part, is heard less often than one would expect in a two-hour documentary, and he doesn’t appear on camera until almost the very end.) The people of Flint, as they struggle for justice and accountability, largely tell this story through their own words and extensive archive, and it’s far from pretty.

Ultimately, “FLINT” is real-life American horror at its most devastating and disappointing, as it provides no indication that either hope or human decency can prevail. 

“FLINT” opens in U.S. theaters April 29.