- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (4/12/2020)
(Reviews of Nova Lituania; To the Ends of the Earth; Queen of Hearts; The Ringmaster; The End of the Storm; and Flint)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release during Lockdown 2, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
Following a well-received pair of shorts, The Noisemaker (2014) and Watchkeeping (2017), Karolis Kaupinis makes an accomplished feature bow with Nova Lituania, a satire rooted loosely in truth that says as much about realpolitik in the second decade of the 21st century as it does about events in north-eastern Europe in the months before the Third Reich and the Soviet Union conducted the Pact of Steel. Photographed with mischievously anachronistic clarity on boxy digital monochrome, this is both a whimsical slice of revisionist historiography and a sly dig at the way those in power hoodwink themselves and others into believing that they are invariably acting from the loftiest ideals.
It's 1938 and President Juozapas Palionis (Valentinas Masalskis) is addressing a passing out parade at Lithuania's military academy. As he speaks, General Svegzda (Julius Zalakevicius) confides in Prime Minister Jonas Servus (Vaidotas Martinaitis) that a Polish soldier has been shot on their side of the border. Relations between the two countries have been tense since the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, was ceded to Poland during peace negotiations in the early 1920s. But, with Germany and the Soviet Union making bellicose noises, Servus thinks that it would be wise to apologise to Warsaw and avoid a confrontation the army is in no state to win.
Across the temporary capital of Kaunas, Professor Feliksas Gruodis (Aleksas Kazanavicius) is working on a plan to establish a backup Lithuania in case the fatherland is overrun. He has spent five years visiting potential sites in Canada, Brazil, Alaska and Southern Africa. However, he has been frustrated in his scheme and hopes the spiralling crisis will enable him to bring his idea to the attention of the government. Much to his delight, Servus is intrigued by the notion and agrees to give it some thought. However, he is made a scapegoat when Lithuania backs down and he takes the opportunity to have some lifesaving heart surgery.
In an ironic twist, Gruodis's home life rather reflects the national situation. He lives in a roomy apartment with his wife, Veronika (Rasa Samuolyte), and his cousin's daughter, Julyete (Roberta Sirgedaite), who occupies the spare room. However, Veronika's mother, Kotryna (Egle Gabrenaite), has come to stay and has forced him out of the room in which he stores his research materials. A woman of strong opinions who is used to being obeyed, Kotryna makes it clear that she disapproves of Julyeye's presence and reminds Veronika that she still has time for children if she shapes herself. Moreover, she has sought out Antonas (Ridas Jasiulionis), who had seemingly been smitten with Veronika and invites him to tea.
While Gruodis is facing usurpation on the domestic front, Servus has been made president of the national bank, as Palionis feels guilty about sacking him. He is eager to use his position to fund a Backup colony and is dismayed when Palionis insists on sponsoring a new sports arena, as he can tell that the German advance into Austria and Czechoslovakia means that it's only a matter of time before either Poland or the USSR makes a land grab of their own. He discusses the prospect of a coup with one of the generals. But, following an anxious night waiting for his decision, they realise that Palionis retains the faith of the forces, even though Svegzda has just returned from Moscow after having traded off the return of Vilnius against the billeting of a large Red Army contingent on Lithuanian soil.
Given the Kremlin's current creeping ambition with regards to the former Soviet satellite republics, this is a disconcerting lampoon that bears comparison with Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin (2017). While the politicians are entirely fictional, Feliksas Gruodis is based on geographer Kazys Pakštas, who did propose relocating the Lithuanian elite in the 1930s in order to spare them the ignominy of occupation. He is played with a hangdog intensity by Aleksas Kazanavicius that perfectly complements the melancholic sincerity with which Vaidotas Martinaitis plays Servus. Their discussions are as close as the film gets to animation, but the scene in which they sit silently in Servus's cramped government flat and watch his young daughter drawing is achingly poignant.
Valentinas Masalskis also shows well as the bluff president who has his speeches written by uncredited underlings, while Egle Gabrenaite provides the flipside of the class coin as the haughty mother-in-law who despairs of her mousy daughter's choices. For all the splendidness of the ensemble, however, it's the look of the film that most impresses. Production designer Audrias Dumikas's use of space is outstanding, while Simonas Glinskis's imagery toys with yesteryear conventions whose appositeness is reinforced by the delightful period dance band music on the soundtrack. Kaupinis also directs with a measured assurance that reflects the script's refusal to lapse into superfluous exposition and the ease with which it makes unpalatable notions seem both amusing and sinister.
TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH.
Showing on MUBI as part of its season, The Uncanny Universe of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, To the Ends of the Earth (2018) was commissioned to celebrate the diplomatic and cultural ties between Japan and Uzbekistan. Proving something of a change of tack after the disconcerting Creepy (2016) and Foreboding (2017), this offbeat odyssey reunites the prolific director with Atusko Maeda, who had found fame as a teenager as part of the AKB48 J-pop troupe before collaborating with Kurosawa on Seventh Code (2013) and Before We Vanish (2017).
Yoko (Atusko Maeda) is a reporter for a TV travel show and has journeyed to Uzbekistan to film an item with director Yoshioka (Shota Sometani), cameraman Iwao (Ryo Kase) and assistant Sasaki (Tokio Emoto). They are accompanied by Temur (Adiz Rajabov), a nipponophile interpreter who is aware of the cultural chasm between the visitors and their hosts. While trying to catch an elusive bramul fish on Lake Aydar, Temur has to tread carefully when the local fisherman declares that they aren't having any luck because women don't belong on boats. Similarly, when they visit a traditional café to sample a specialty dish, the owner serves uncooked rice because she can't afford any firewood.
Having crunched through several takes to please the irascible Yoshi, Yoko is in no mood to dig into the plate of plov that the beaming cook has produced after lighting her stove. But the crew save the day and Yoko is grateful for a tupperware of leftovers after she gets lost in the bazaar in Samarkand and is relieved to find the bus stop after having trudged through the ill-lit backstreets with a mounting sense of trepidation. A text chat with her fireman boyfriend back in Tokyo does much to lift her spirits, however, and she is grins and bears the ordeal of having to take three spins on a stomach-churning carnival ride to ensure that Yoshi has enough coverage.
When all attempts to persuade the fisherman to let Yoko on his boat come to nought, she remembers seeing a tethered goat in a courtyard pen and suggests freeing it on a verdant hillside would make an entertaining segment. Yoshi needs coaxing, but they buy Okku and transport him to some scrubland on the outskirts of the city. No sooner has she watched him trot away, however, than the owner comes to recapture him. She argues that he would be attacked by wild dogs and would be better off in her care, but Yoshi produces some more money and the billy goat heads off into the distance.
Relocating to Tashkent, Temur notices that Yoko is feeling rundown. He chats to her in the hotel lobby about her life back home and she reveals that she hopes to marry Ryo, a Tokyo Bay firefighter. Sasaki and Iwao are also kind to her and Yoko confides to the latter that she has an audition for a musical when she returns. The prospect of another wander further perks her up and Yoko imagines herself singing Edith Piaf's the Marguerite Monnot-composed classic. `Hymne de l'amour', on the stage of the Navoi Theatre.
Frustrated at being denied permission to film a bramul in the city aquarium, Yoshi announces that he has lost faith in the project. Temur suggests they tell the story of the Navoi, as it was decorated by Japanese POWs after the Second World War. Everyone is enchanted by this symbol of cross-cultural collaboration, but Yoshi thinks it would make lousy television and would be wholly unsuitable for an audience that prefer to sneer in a superior manner at foreign lands rather than learn about them. Consequently, he decides to let Yoko loose in the bazaar and Sasaki gives her a mini-camera so they can cut some of her POV footage into the final edit.
No longer the timid tourist who fled the Samarkand market and made her purchases from a corner grocery store, Yoko breezes along the aisles and turns her lens on everything from fruit and vegetables to meat and dresses. On spotting a ginger cat, she decides to follow it and loses the rest of the crew. However, she strays into a forbidden area and tries to hide under a bridge when she is chased by security guards.
Taken to the nearest police station, Yoko struggles to understand the English of the investigating officer. Fortunately, Temur arrives and she is crestfallen when the cop asks why she had presumed that uniformed Uzbeks posed a threat and why she hadn't taken the trouble to learn something about the people she was reporting on. As the tearful Yoko leaves the station, she sees a TV news report about an oil refinery blaze in Tokyo and spends an excruciating night waiting for news of her beau. He is unharmed, however, and Yoko agrees to help Iwao shoot some background footage when Yoshi and Sasaki fly home. While out in the countryside, she spots Okku gamboling on the pasture and breaks into closing rendition of `Hymne de l'amour'.
On the surface, this could be viewed as an amusing study of clashing cultures, in which the Japanese are portrayed as insensitive travellers. But this is also a shrewd satire on the ways in which countries perpetuate and dispel stereotypes to suit their own agendas. Moreover, it's also a critique of Atusko Maeda's public image, as Kurosawa has Yoko turn on her peppy screen persona the moment the camera rolls and revert to her more introverted self when the lights dim. Rising to the self-deprecating challenge and ably supported by her male co-stars, Maeda exposes how the demands placed upon celebrities erode their sense of themselves and cut them adrift from everyday normality.
Abetted by cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa, Kurosawa captures the Uzbek landscape in much the same way that Akira Kurosawa photographed the Soviet steppes in Dersu Uzala (1975). However, he also uses crowded buses, markets and underpasses to convey the intimidating sense of being a stranger in a strange land, no matter how welcoming the natives may be. He also takes potshots at directors who consider themselves above their material and the trivialising and sometimes xenophobic nature of Japanese television. As for whether the closing number is meant to evoke memories of Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965) or Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), we'll let you decide.
QUEEN OF HEARTS.
Having debuted with a romcom (Long Story Short, 2015), Danish director May el-Toukhy makes a conscious bid to drag the Douglas Sirk brand of pristinely tasteful bourgeois melodrama into the murkier millennium with Queen of Hearts. Reuniting the sophomore with her previous star, the ever-compelling Trine Dyrholm, this rigorously controlled saga explores the concept of predatory female sexuality with a curious taboo-flaunting delicacy. But the refusal to delve beneath the polished surface means that El-Toukhy and Maren Louise Käehn's screenplay is more interested in provoking than expounding.
Fortysomething Anne (Trine Dyrholm) lives in an modernist country house with her doctor husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), and their twin daughters, Fanny (Silja Esmår Dannemann) and Frida (Liv Esmår Dannemann). As a lawyer, Anne specialises in helping traumatised children like Sara (Ella Solgaard), who idolise her. When Gustav (Gustav Lindh), the Swedish son of Peter's first marriage comes to live with them, Anne strives to make the gangling and slightly surly teenage welcome.
She is amused when he brings home a girl and they have noisy sex in his room. Her interest in him becomes increasingly unhealthy, however, and, following a snatched kiss in the pub, Anne turns up in Gustav's bedroom while Peter is away and they become lovers. Initially, it's exciting and fun. But Anne's conscience starts to pang after her adoring single mom sister, Lina (Stine Gyldenkerne), sees the couple kissing at a birthday party. Crushed at being dumped with the platitude, `sometimes what happens and what must never happen are the same thing', Gustav tries to get back at her by confessing to his father. However, Anne is an expert in human behaviour and, having destroyed some incriminating audio evidence, holds firm to her insistence that the boy is lying.
Despite the focus falling on step-incest, this is primarily a study of the sinister consequences of unshakeable moral superiority. Superbly played by Trine Dyrholm, the hypocritical Anne was possibly damaged as a child. But she seems to have her emotions so tightly under control that her reckless fling with Gustav feels more like a dramatic contrivance than a credible occurrence. While remaining largely detached, El-Toukhy strives to convince the audience that such unsuspected monsters exist and that they have the assurance to avoid having to take responsibility for their actions. Things are made easier for the malevolently manipulative Anne, however, by the weakness of her workaholic husband and the unreliability of her victim, who are played with varying degrees of success by Magnus Krepper and Gustav Lindh.
If El-Toukhy provides too little backstory for the action to seem plausible and shocking, she nails the setting in which a master manipulator could operate. Mia Stensgaard's interiors and Rebecca Richmond's costumes are spot on, while Jasper J. Spanning's camerawork is as stealthy as Rasmus Madsen's editing and Jon Ekstrand's quirkily insinuating score. But, even as the family leave together in silence for an off-screen funeral, El-Toukhy leaves the sense that the truth won't stay buried forever, especially when somebody notices the tattoo on Anne's arm.
Dane Søren Juul Petersen has been producing features for his Zeitgeist company since 1998. After three decades behind the scenes, he made his directorial debut with The Ringmaster, which appears to have been dusted down for digital release just before lockdown ends. Following in the blood-stained footsteps of Kasper Juhl's Sunken Danish (2012), Madness of Many (2013) and Monstrosity (2014), this exercise in `torture porn' - which is also known as Finale - will only appeal to the least discriminating genre fans.
On the night of the Danish cup final, Agnes (Anne Bergfeld) is dropped off by her newly qualified doctor boyfriend, Benjamin (Kristoffer Fabricius), at the remote garage owned by her father. She is about to leave for Germany, but is doing one last late shift with Belinda (Karin Michelsen), who is unhappy because her mother has thrown her out because of her boyfriend, Kenny (Mads Koudal). However, the woman are puzzled by the fact that the air pump keeps reappearing on the forecourt and they are unnerved by the return of the two men (Kim Sønderholm and Gustav Scavenius) who had filmed Agnes.
This proves to be a false alarm, as does the discovery of a small fire in the car wash and a threatening slogan daubed on the walls. But they fail to put the pieces together when Kenny reveals he had been paid 1000 kroner by a stranger to film his prank. So, when they find him with stab wounds in a cupboard and Benjamin arrives in time to minister to him, it's almost inevitable that the lights will go out and the non-linear narrativity gives way to some stylised peepshow gambitry.
As the action had started with two warnings about the brutality of what is to follow. it should come as no surprise to learn that the cutaways to Agnes being locked in a cupboard denote the fact that she and Belinda are in mortal danger. It comes in the shape of the Ringmaster (Damon Younger), who had earlier purchased a gas canister and asked for the latest score in the final. Now, daubed in clown's paint, he has assembled a live audience to a dark web feed to watch Agnes endure the agony of watching Benjamin being brutalised with a blowtorch, some anti-freeze, a large spanner and a torso-ripping winch.
On producing Belinda, the Ringmaster invites suggestions for further torture and both women are assaulted with a staple gun before Belinda turns the tables with a box cutter and, as the onlookers flee, their assailant crashes through a plate glass window with his throat cut. His henchmen chase the fleeing women through the corridors of the disused building to which they have been abducted. But, no sooner have they passed a painting depicting sadistic sport in a Roman amphitheatre than Belinda takes a bullet to the shoulder. Agnes cracks the shooter's skull on the side of a sink, but they get no further than the Ringmaster's caravan, where Agnes finds the snuffcast paraphernalia. Too weak to go on, Belinda stays behind the give the remaining thug an explosive send off. Yet, even though Agnes makes it across the bridge to Germany, she can't help noticing the CCTV cameras gazing down on her, as the ambulance crew tend to her wounds.
What was it Anton Chekhov said about a gas canister in Act One? Clearly, Steen Langstrup had this dictum in mind when he wrote his award-winning source novel, which he has adapted for the screen with the help of Petersen and Carsten Juul Bladt. However, the twisted triumvirate are also familiar with James Whales's Frankenstein (1931), as they have Lars Knutzon deliver a similar speech to the one in which Edward van Sloan concluded: `I think it will thrill you. It may shock you.It might even - horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to - oh, well, we warned you.'
Abetted by cinematographer Tobias Scavenius, editor Jacob Kondrup, composer Peter K. Nørgaard and the creditably committed Anne Bergfeld and Karin Michelsen, Petersen makes a suitably slick job of building suspense in the opening third. But the decision to cut ahead to the carnage misfires dreadfully and leaves the `horror circus' set-piece (complete with its English-language voiceover and intertitles) looking crassly sensationalist. The flashes of flesh only reinforce the sense that this is a nasty piece of exploitation that rings too hollow for any of its thudding asides on online abuse and audience culpability to land with a resounding clang of sordid cynicism.
THE END OF THE STORM.
Shortly after demonstrating his versatility with Billie, James Erskine returns to his more familiar sporting beat with The End of the Storm. Chronicling the season in which Liverpool FC ended a 30-year wait for a title by winning the Premier League for the first time, this is also a tribute to the communality of the club and the part that the Kop anthem, `You'll Never Walk Alone', played in uniting players and supporters after crowds were barred from stadiums during the coronavirus pandemic.
The focus falls primarily on Jürgen Klopp, who opens by speaking about his love of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein song that sums up his philosophy of life. Indeed, since arriving on Merseyside from Dortmund in October 2015, Klopp has used its mentality to transform the inherited squad that played out a goalless draw on his debut at White Hart Lane. Such is the ingenuity of his coaching style, however, that he has also tapped into the expertise of athletes like surfer Sebastian Streudtner, who came to the Evian training camp in the summer of 2019 and taught the players some underwater breathing techniques to help them adopt cool thinking strategies and deal with the pressure placed upon them by 450 million supporters worldwide.
Key to Klopp's change of ethos and its successful implementation have been signings like forward Sadio Mané, defender Virgil Van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker. However, regulars like Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino also did their bit and it's slightly disappointing that Erskine didn't canvas more players for interview, particularly as James Milner and Andy Robertson are so wittily erudite. Compliments are paid along the way to Egyptian King Mohamed Salah and local hero Trent Alexander-Arnold, but it might have been nice to learn a bit more about the dressing-room camaraderie, especially as it was so evident to anyone who watched clips from the lockdown Zoom chats on the Liverpool TV website.
As the 2019-20 season kicked off at home to Norwich City, Liverpool had to bear the added expectations of being Champions League winners and of having run Manchester City so close in amassing 97 points during the previous campaign. Things got off to a frustrating start, with Alisson getting injured during a 4-1 win and Adrián having to make his debut just four days after joining the club. Erskine might have mentioned here that he helped secure his status with supporters with his penalty shootout heroics against Chelsea in the Super Cup. But he prefers to reinforce the concept of Liverpool's global fan base by introducing us to Sofia from Auckland, Lucas, Marina and Carla from Rio de Janeiro, Laurice, Lowell, Jayden and Karma'del from Detroit, Ahmed and Adel from Cairo, Kavi, Tarika and Nainika from Kolkata and Dom and Theo from Liverpool. He also drops in on Hiroaki, whose love of the club prompted him to relocate, and Xiaoyang, who would keep watching as dramatic events started to unfold in his home city of Wuhan.
Speaking at the Melwood training centre, Klopp expounds upon the importance of defence to his attacking style of play and how he recruits players to fit the system. Mention might have been made here of his backroom staff and the roles played by sporting director Michael Edwards and the Fenway Sports Group. But this doesn't fit Erskine's narrative and we hear instead about Klopp's Black Forest upbringing and his regret that the father who had been his denied dream with Kaiserslautern never got to see him become a successful manager. He admits to being animated on the touchline and some of the anger that brought him numerous red cards in the Bundesliga spilled out when Leicester City's Hamza Choudhury scythed down Mo Salah a few weeks after injuring another player with an equally reckless tackle.
Klopp's sense of injustice would doubtless have been piqued by VAR's failure to notice a foul on Divock Origi in the build-up to Marcus Rashford's goal at Old Trafford. However, Adam Lallana's late equaliser ensured that Liverpool's unbeaten run continued and that the gap to City after eight games was an unexpected eight points. This kept expanding as Jordan Henderson - who had been brought to the club by Kenny Dalglish - drove his teammates on with captain's performances that were bolstered by the rapport with the manager that was reinforced by the leadership group he had established with Hendo, Millie, Virgil and fellow Dutchman, Georgino Wijnaldum.
However, it was the Brazilian trio of Alisson, Firmino and Fabinho who convinced Klopp to take the World Club Championship seriously and the Reds returned from Qatar with their first win in the competition after beating Flamengo 1-0 after extra time. Fears of burnout were dispelled by a sensational 1-4 win at Leicester on Boxing Day and it only seemed like a matter of time before Premier pennant would be flying over Anfield. As the unbeaten league record ended at Watford and the CL journey hit the buffers against Atlético Madrid, however, the Covid-19 situation deteriorated across Europe and football was mothballed in late March. With the Dutch and French leagues having been voided, pundits like Rio Ferdinand cynically sought to curry favour with Mancunians by calling for the English season to be abandoned, despite Liverpool being 25 points clear.
While the players stayed fit as best they could and remained in close contact through social media, the footballing authorities held their nerve and games resumed behind closed doors in June. This meant that Liverpool achieved the unique feat of becoming the earliest title winners in terms of games and the latest in relation to dates. In truth, though, they rather stumbled over the line in unprecedented circumstances, but the squad gathered to watch Chelsea hand them the crown by beating City. The Blues also played a part in a great night at Anfield, as Liverpool won 5-3 before King Kenny handed the much-coveted trophy to Jordan Henderson, who ended 30 years of hurt with his famous podium shuffle.
Closing captions reveal that Liverpool amassed 99 points in beating every other team at least once in winning the league by 18 points. Who knows what the stats might have been had the momentum not been interrupted. But, having waited so long, the fans were just grateful to be back at the pinnacle of the English game. A shot of the Champions Wall at Melwood might have made for a fitting finale, especially as the club has since left its home of six decades for a new facility in Kirby. It might also have been nicer to hear the Gerry and The Pacemaker's version of `You'll Never Walk Alone' rather than Lana Del Rey's rather affected rendition. But Erskine deftly judges the `job done, move on' mood that Klopp immediately instilled after taking his place alongside such icons as Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish.
Aptly titled and adeptly assembled, this is a fitting celebration of a remarkable achievement. Editor Avdhesh Mohla does a splendid job in knitting together the on-field action with the perspectives of the supporters and players, as well as the manager who worked the oracle. The international segments feel a bit samey, but they reinforce Klopp's contention that the fans were an essential part of the victory, even at a remove. Erskine seeks to depict the German as a humble messiah and his decency and normality shine through, particularly when discussing his relationship with his taskmaster father. But this was a team effort that involved all 450 million of us Koppites. The challenge now is to cement greatness by doing it again. Here's to title No.20! YNWA.
One suspects that Anthony Baxter has rather enjoyed being a thorn in Donald Trump's side. Having sided in You've Been Trumped (2011) with the Balmedie locals whose lives had been affected by the building of the Donald's Aberdeenshire golf course, the Montrose documentarist reported on the intimidation he had endured while pursuing the presidential candidate to his New York lair in You've Been Trumped Too (2016). Now, in Flint, Baxter turns his attention to the scene of Michael Moore's Roger & Me (1989) to examine the disastrous policies that poisoned the Michigan city's water supply. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, this is an apt footnote to what has been a particularly toxic period in US history.
In 2014, in order to save around $5 million over two years, Republican governor Rick Snyder agreed to stop taking Flint's water supply from Lake Huron and switch to treated water from the River Flint. Soon afterwards, residents began reporting skin conditions and hair loss that Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha of the Hurley Medical Centre identified as being related to abnormal levels of lead in the water. Concerned about the welfare of her family and friends, LeeAnne Walters invited Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech University to conduct a study and he was appalled by both the corrosive nature of the water supply and the inertia of the civic and state authorities.
Having picked up on the story, Anthony Baxter started interviewing residents like Tammy and Ken Loren and their three sons, single mother Nakiya Wakes, Teni'sha Ajayi and her young son, rapper Mama Sol, mother of five daughters Jessica Gutierrez and Florlisa Fowler and deaf daughter Taylor Stebbins. He also became acquainted with lawyer Trachelle Young and music promoter-cum-mother of four boys Melissa Mays, who had co-founded the campaign group, Water You Fighting For? She was encouraged by Edwards's findings and hopes were raised when Synder reversed his decision and reconnected Lake Huron in March 2015.
In January 2016, Syder admitted to a spike in instances of Legionaires' disease during the River Flint period and Baxter speaks to misdiagnosed victim Suzan Harrington. He also interviews plumbing union official Harold Harrington, who is determined to remove dangerous pipes and ensure that citizens no longer have to use unreliable water filters on their taps. However, supportive mayor Karen Weaver only has a limited budget at her disposal and, as legal writs began to fly, accusations of environmental racism were levelled against the authorities. Worse still, President Barack Obama came to Flint and so misjudged the mood that he paused during a speech to sip from the first of several glasses of water during the course of his visit.
Much to the dismay of the Flintonians worst affected by the crisis, Edwards seemed to change sides and defend official policies. At this point, actor Mark Ruffalo and his Water Defense group took an interest in proceedings and Steve Scott arrived in Michigan to conduct a series of tests that concluded that it was not safe to bathe in Flint water. Edwards dismissed such `citizen science' and told Baxter that the United States was in danger of retreating into a Dark Age. Melissa Mays felt betrayed and criticised Edwards in print, causing him to sue her for $3 million damages. At this juncture, Smith returned to the city to concede that he had made mistakes in his investigation and that Edwards had been right all along. When Baxter confronted him, however, Smith became aggressively defensive about his status and his efforts.
With so many participants appearing to be so potentially litigious, discretion dictates that it would be sensible for the brassic blogger to choose their words carefully in assessing this study in the breakdown of truth and trust. In all honesty, few of the experts and politicians come out of this sorry saga with much credit, as a generation (and probably beyond) will suffer from the adverse effects of a penny-pinching initiative that prioritised the civic coffers over the health of people who were already having a hard time because of Flint's continuing economic decline. However, some of the campaigners also appear to be guilty of errors of judgement, even though these were largely understandable given the stressful circumstances.
As in his Trump exposés, Baxter proves a tenacious chronicler and he deserves considerable credit for sticking with the story after the news cameras left. In amassing over 400 hours of footage over five years, he also exposed himself to a degree of risk, as he was staying in Flint hotels and using potentially contaminated water in order to unearth the truth. On this occasion, however, he makes a few missteps, ranging from his overuse of drone and pillow shots and his reliance on Dominic Glynn's cornily melodramatic score.
The gambit of bringing narrator Alec Baldwin to Flint to meet Florlisa Fowler, Taylor Stebbins and Mayor Karen Weaver feels as stuntish as Mark Ruffalo's appearance in support of Steve Smith, who winds up pipping Marc Edwards (for good or bad reasons) in becoming the villain of the piece. Such glitches, however, shouldn't distract from the sincerity and significance of a documentary that deserves to stand alongside Josh Fox's Gasland (2010) and Stefano Liberti and Enrico Parenti's Soyalism (2018) in showing how incompetence, arrogance and neglect in high places can have a calamitous trickle down effect on those on the lower rungs.